NAZARETH, Israel (AP) – A Roman Catholic bishop on Saturday called for better protection of Christians and their holy sites after an Israeli couple and their daughter set off a series of small explosions in the Basilica of the Annunciation, a major shrine in the town of Jesus’ boyhood.
Although the attack apparently was driven by personal distress and not extremism, it heightened religious and political tensions in the Holy Land.
The incident began Friday evening when the three suspects, using a baby stroller, smuggled firecrackers and small gas canisters into the packed basilica during Lent prayers. The church was not guarded at the time.
The assailants threw the explosives from the balcony and were beaten by worshippers before police arrived and locked them in a room for protection, police said. After a three-hour standoff between police and thousands of protesters, the suspects were led away through a back exit, disguised as police officers.
Christian leaders were planning a march Saturday to protest the attack, which caused minor damage, but sparked widespread stone-throwing riots in which two dozen people, including 13 police officers, were hurt. Club-wielding police fired stun grenades to keep back the angry crowd. Police said the man involved in the attack, Haim Eliyahu Habibi, had financial problems, and apparently is not a Jewish extremist. Habibi, his Christian wife Violet and their 20-year-old daughter were treated at a hospital before being taken into custody early Saturday.
Habibi’s daughter told investigators her parents had wanted to create a provocation to draw attention to their economic troubles and protest that two of their children had been taken from them by the Israeli authorities, Yaakov Sigdon, a police commander in northern Israel, told Israel Radio. Several years ago, the family had sought political asylum in a West Bank town under Palestinian control for similar reasons.
Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni contacted the Vatican late Friday, offering assurances that Israel is committed to protecting Christian holy places, officials said. Acting Prime Minister Ehud Olmert also discussed the situation with Nazareth’s mayor, Olmert’s office said.
Archbishop Elias Shakur, the top Roman Catholic official in Nazareth, issued a call for unity among Israel’s citizens and dismissed the attackers as lone extremists.
While praising the Israeli response, he said “it is not enough.”
“It’s a big tragedy for all of us in Israel, for Christians, for having their most holy places spoiled and used in a barbaric way,” he said.
Church leaders in Nazareth planned a demonstration later Saturday. Ahead of the rally, children distributed pamphlets, signed by Christian leaders, to motorists condemning the attack. “This act contradicts the simplest rules of civilization and humanity … and is a flagrant violation of the state’s commitment to the protection of Christian and Muslim sacred places,” said the pamphlet.
The town was quiet Saturday, and at the basilica, a small group of worshippers gathered to pray. Black stains on the walls caused by the explosion were removed.
But tensions remained high in northern Israel, where much of the country’s Arab population is located. Police postponed at least seven matches Saturday, fearing riots could break out.
In the Gaza Strip, Ismail Haniyeh, the designated Palestinian prime minister from the Islamic militant Hamas group, held Israel responsible. He said the attack was the result “of a hate culture which Israel is feeding its public against the Palestinians, and their Christian and Islamic holy places and believers.”
Boulos Rececinto Marcuzzio, vicar of the Latin patriarch in Israel and a bishop in Nazareth, said Friday’s attack and anti-Christian riots last year in the northern Israeli village of Maghar were cause for concern. “What happened … is strong enough to let us think that we have to ask for our legal protection here,” he said Saturday.
In Maghar, Druse villagers had burned down dozens of Christian-owned businesses after rumors spread that Christian youths disseminated naked pictures of Druse girls on the Internet. No evidence has been found to substantiate the rumors, but villagers said they provided a spark to a situation in the divided village that was already tense.
The Druze religion is a secretive offshoot of Islam. The Basilica of the Annunciation is built on the site where Christians believe the Angel Gabriel appeared before the Virgin Mary and foretold the birth of Jesus.
Nazareth, the boyhood town of Jesus, is located in northern Israel. It is inhabited by Christian and Muslim Arabs, and religious tensions have boiled over in the past, with the two sides in a dispute over attempts to build a mosque next to the church.
The attack also underscored the tense relations between Israel’s Jewish majority and its Arab minority. Israeli Arabs, who make up about 20 percent of the population, complain of discrimination.
Israel’s roughly 1 million Arabs hold Israeli citizenship, in contrast to Palestinian residents of the West Bank and Gaza Strip who live under the Palestinian Authority. Despite tensions between Jews and Arabs, violence is rare. Last August, a Jewish army deserter killed four Israeli Arabs in a shooting rampage on a bus. The attacker was killed by a mob.
In the worst ethnic violence in Israel, police killed 13 Arab-Israeli demonstrators who blocked a highway in October 2000, shortly after the outbreak of the Palestinian uprising.