CAIRO, Egypt, (AP) – Extra security guards around churches in Egypt and Lebanon. Armed officers surrounding at least one. With the tensions over Pope Benedict XVI’s remarks on Islam still high, many in the Mideast’s large Christian communities are worried about a backlash.
“We are afraid,” said Sonia Kobatazi, a Christian Lebanese, after Sunday morning Mass at the Maronite Christian St. George Cathedral in Beirut, Lebanon, where about a dozen policemen carrying automatic weapons stood guard outside.
Christians — a minority in the Mideast that varies from nearly 40 percent in Lebanon to tiny communities in the Gulf states — generally live in peace with the majority Muslims.
But relations are sometimes strained and outbreaks of violence have occurred in recent years. Some worry the flap over the pope will lead to a new round.
Muslims, and some Christians, across the region have expressed anger over comments Benedict made Tuesday in Germany where he cited the words of a Byzantine emperor who characterized some of the teachings of Islam’s Prophet Muhammad as “evil and inhuman.”
The pope on Sunday said that he was “deeply sorry” about the angry reaction and said the remarks came from a text that didn’t reflect his own opinion.
There were no reports of violence against Christians in much of the Mideast on Sunday, but two churches in the Palestinian West Bank were set afire a day after Muslims hurled firebombs and opened fire at four other West Bank churches and one in the Gaza Strip.
Protesters also have taken to the streets in some cities, with some angry demonstrators calling Christians “infidels,” and ralliers labeling the pope’s comments as evidence of a new Crusade against Muslims.
On Monday, about 150 people in the Pakistani-controlled region of Kashmir demanded that the pope apologize over his remarks on Islam, chanting “Death to the Pope” and burning his effigy.
The protests and violence have stirred up memories of the fury over cartoons that were published in a Danish newspaper of the Prophet Muhammad. Angry demonstrations took place in many countries, and some of the violence was directed at Western targets and Christian churches.
Christians have been targeted in other cases. Car bombs exploded in January, killing at least three people in a coordinated spree of attacks outside the Vatican mission and at least five churches in Iraq, where Christians make up just 3 percent of Iraq’s 26 million people.
Egypt — where Coptic Christians are about 10 percent of the country’s 73 million people — saw instances of sectarian violence during the past year. A Coptic and a Muslim were killed and at least 40 others wounded in clashes in the port city of Alexandria in April. Last fall, Alexandria also witnessed deadly Muslim rioting targeting Christian churches.
“We in Egypt, despite coming from two different religions, have lived together for 14 centuries and engaged in religious dialogue,” the head of the Coptic Orthodox Church, Pope Shenouda III told reporters Sunday in Cairo.
But Shenouda downplayed the impact of Benedict’s remarks on interfaith relations in Egypt. “He caused a gap between his church and the Islamic world, but not between our church and Muslims,” the Egyptian pope added.
The tension being expressed over the pope’s comments is not just coming from Muslims in the region. Some Christians have openly expressed their dislike for Islam.
“We (Christian and Muslims) live together because we are obliged to, but we have an entirely different mentality,” said Marie-Jeanne Atala, a Christian in Lebanon, a country that has still not fully recovered from its 15-year civil war that saw fierce battles between Muslim and Christian militias.
Despite growing friction, Christian leaders gave mixed responses to the pope’s words and the Vatican response, with some defending the pontiff and others saying his comments were offensive.
Cardinal Nasrallah Sfeir, spiritual leader of Lebanon’s Maronites, who owe allegiance to Benedict, defended the pope during his Sunday sermon, arguing that the pontiff “respects Islam and disagrees with religiously motivated violence.”
But one Roman Catholic priest in the Jordanian capital of Amman said he felt the “pain of our Muslim brothers.”
“We lived with our brothers in Islam in the good times and the bad times. We shared the laughter of joy and the tears of sorrow. We as Christians were so loyal to our nation. We have martyrs in all the battles of the Arab Jordanian army where the blood of Christians has mixed with that of Muslims,” the Rev. Jihad Shweihat said.