Catholic Palestinians downplay Muslim attacks on Christian churches
JERUSALEM (CNS) – Christian Palestinians tried to downplay the significance of Muslim attacks on seven Christian churches in the West Bank and Gaza in protest of Pope Benedict XVI's remarks on Islam in Germany.
Just after the Sept. 16 shooting attack on St. John the Baptist Church in Nablus, West Bank, Melkite Father Youssef Saadeh, the parish priest, told a journalist Christians were no longer safe and would not be able to live in Nablus if the situation continued. The church's door was set afire in the attack.
However, in a Sept. 18 telephone interview, Father Saadeh made light of the situation, saying things were quiet, although it was impossible to know what would happen.
Father Saadeh skirted a question about fear that the attacks had instilled in the Christian community and instead pointed out that Muslim religious leaders and municipal leaders had visited Christian churches to signify solidarity.
No arrest had been made in connection with the attacks aimed at four Nablus churches, he said.
"Now we want to be strong and quiet," said Father Saadeh. "We don't know how it will be in the future, but like all people Muslims and Christians hope (the problems) are finished here."
His daughter, Rita Saadeh, who was at the church during the incident, was shaken up by the attacks and spoke out more strongly.
"When we saw the fire and smoke at the door we were afraid. The inside of the church is wood and we didn't have the key. We had no way to put out the fire," Saadeh, 33, said in a telephone interview. She described how the gunmen tried to kick down the door and ignited it with gasoline, then shot bullets into the church as she and her brother watched in terror.
She said she was not sure whether the violence had ended.
She added that the Muslim reaction was "very wrong" and carried out without having knowledge of what the pope actually said.
In an address Sept. 12 to scholars in Regensburg, Germany, Pope Benedict quoted a medieval text, a historical criticism of Islam, which he later said did not reflect his personal opinion.
"Why if the pope ... says this ... must we pay? We are angry at what has happened here. It is not clear until now what the pope said. He was comparing knowledge and faith in religion," she said. "If (Muslims) say anything about the church we don't do anything (to them.) They also say we are terrorists, but we never react in the same way."
She said she was more relaxed two days after the attack and was able to go to work, where Muslim colleagues tried to put her at ease and reassure her.
Meanwhile, Palestinian Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh condemned the attacks.
Church officials were careful in their wording about the incidents, and no official condemnation was issued against the attackers.
Christians make up less than 2 percent of the population of about 3 million in the Palestinian territories and generally talk of unity and brotherhood. However, privately some Christians complain about tensions between the two groups.
A group of Muslims also meant to attack Holy Family Catholic Church in Nablus, said the parish priest, Father Jalil Awwad, but mistook a nearby door as the church's entrance and threw firebombs at it instead.
Anglican and Greek Orthodox churches in Nablus also were attacked, as were Greek Orthodox churches in Gaza, and Tulkarm and Tubas in the West Bank. No attacks on churches were reported in Israel.
"It is not scary, they didn't hurt anybody; they did only damage to material things," said Father Awwad. "Nobody agrees with these actions, not even Muslims."
He said there has been more security around churches following the attacks.
Latin-rite Patriarch Michel Sabbah of Jerusalem, accompanied by Lutheran and Anglican bishops, attended a prayer service at a Nablus Anglican church Sept. 17.
In a Sept. 15 statement, the patriarch said Pope Benedict used the quote by Byzantine Emperor Manuel II Paleologus to "explore the question of faith and the mind."
The pope's remarks were only partially quoted, Patriarch Sabbah added, and whoever brought the remarks to the attention of the Arabic press may have had the intention of bringing strife between the Muslim and Christian communities.
"Our reaction (to the comments) must be according to the concepts of the lecture (which) was only about faith and mind and not about Islam," he said.
In the statement Patriarch Sabbah expressed hope that the recent shock waves through Islamic communities would serve as a catalyst to put Christian-Muslim dialogue on a new track and would lead to greater understanding on both sides.
Father Majdi al-Siryani, director of the patriarchate schools, said area Christians were "not frightened ... even if a couple of incidents happened here or there."
"There are bad people and good people," he said. "The bad people are a very small minority. When we talk to our people we are not happy about it, and the large majority of Palestinian Muslims and Christians are not happy with what was said (or with) what the reaction has been."
"I know this is not what the pope meant. When he commits a mistake we (forgive) him. He is a human being after all. It happened but he was humble enough to apologize," said Father al-Siryani. "He won't be a politician. He will be a Christian and we will find a way to mend it."
He said several processions honoring Mary in largely Muslim villages Sept. 16-17 were not disturbed.
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Copyright (c) 2007 Catholic News Service/U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops
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