Two West Bank Churches Hit by Firebombs Over Pope Comments

Ali Daraghmeh
Associated Press
Saturday, September 16, 2006 6:13 AM

NABLUS, West Bank -- Two West Bank Christian churches were hit by firebombs early Saturday, and a group claiming responsibility said it was protesting Pope Benedict XVI's remarks about Islam.

Relations between Palestinian Muslims and Christians are generally peaceful, and clergy played down the attacks on an Anglican and a Greek Orthodox church in the city of Nablus as isolated incidents.

But they said they'd worry if more Christian sites are targeted. On Friday, two small explosions went off near a Greek Orthodox church in Gaza, causing minor damage.

"It is easy to worry," Father Yousef Saada, a Roman Catholic priest in Nablus, said Saturday. "The atmosphere is charged already, and the wise should not accept such acts."

The firebombs left black scorch marks on the walls and windows of the two Nablus churches. At least five firebombs hit the Anglican church.

In a phone call to The Associated Press, a group calling itself the "Lions of Monotheism" claimed responsibility. The caller said the attacks were meant as a protest against the pope's remarks about Islam.

Bishop Riah Abo El-Assal, the top Anglican clergyman in the Holy Land, said Saturday he expected his Muslim colleagues would swiftly denounce the attacks on the churches. Abo El-Assal brushed aside the attacks as "childish acts" and said he was not increasing security at the Anglican churches in the area.

During a speech in Germany earlier this week, Benedict cited an obscure Medieval text that characterizes some of the teachings of Islam's founder as "evil and inhuman." The pope, spiritual leader of more than one billion Roman Catholics, did not explicitly agree with or repudiate the text.

The Vatican later said the pope did not mean the comments to be offensive. Muslim leaders, however, have demanded an apology, and there have been protests in several countries.

On Friday, about 2,000 Palestinians protested against the pope in Gaza. Palestinian Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh of the Islamic militant Hamas said the pope offended Muslims everywhere.

Christians make up a small -- and dwindling -- minority of several tens of thousands among the more than 3 million Palestinians in the West Bank, Gaza and east Jerusalem.

© 2006 The Associated Press