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Bishop Calls for Better Security of Christian Sites

A Roman Catholic bishop on Saturday called for better protection of Christian sites after an Israeli couple set off a series of explosions in a church in Nazareth.

The attack, though apparently driven by personal distress rather than extremism, further heightened religious and political tensions in the Holy Land.

The couple and their daughter used a baby stroller to smuggle firecrackers and small gas canisters into the Basilica of the Anunciation on Friday evening.

They threw the explosives from the balcony and were beaten by worshippers before police arrived. 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 planned a march Saturday to protest

The attack caused minor damage, but spurred 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 mob.

Police said the man, 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.

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.

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.

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, blamed Israel, saying the attack is the result "of a hate culture which Israel is feeding its public against the Palestinians, and their Christian and Islamic holy places and believers."

The Basilica of the Anunciation 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 in northern Israel and is inhabited by Christian and Muslim Arabs. 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.