West Bank Churches Burned in Light of Muslim Anger Over Papal Comments

Two West Bank churches were set afire early Sunday as a wave of Muslim anger over comments by Pope Benedict XVI construed as anti-Islam grew throughout the Palestinian areas.

In the West Bank town of Tulkarem, a stone church built 170 years ago was torched before dawn and its entire inside was destroyed, local Christian officials said. In the village of Tubas, a small church was attacked with firebombs and partially burned, Christians said. Neither church is Catholic, the officials said.

On Saturday, Muslims hurled firebombs and opened fire at five churches in the West Bank and Gaza Strip to protest the pope's comments, sparking concerns of a rift between Palestinian Muslims and Christians.

Christians are believed to number about 50,000 people in the West Bank, Gaza Strip and East Jerusalem, about 2 percent of the total Palestinian population. Relations are generally good and the Palestinian Authority has made considerable efforts to ensure their political representation, though tensions periodically flare up.

The pope last week, in a talk rejecting any religious motivation for violence, cited the words of a Byzantine emperor who characterized some of the teachings of the Prophet Muhammad as "evil and inhuman," particularly "his command to spread by the sword the faith."

The pontiff did not endorse that description, but he did not question it, and his words set off a firestorm of protests across the Muslim world.

In Tulkarem, church official Daoud Firoba said Palestinian security had guarded the Greek Orthodox church until midnight, but then left. The entire inside of the sanctuary was burned, including furniture and an ornate wooden door, Firoba said. Books that are 500 years old survived, he said.

"This hurts my heart, this is against my God and my religion," Firoba said. "But I think that those who burned it don't understand that we are Palestinians and we are not related."

The church is used by three Christian families left in Tulkarem, Firoba said.

In the small village of Tubas, Christian resident Michel Sayer said that he smelled smoke at three in the morning.

"I came and saw the church was on fire and immediately we put it out," Sayer said. "We found two firebombs outside that were not thrown in and three inside that had been thrown."

About 100 Christians live in Tubas, Sayer said.

Jerusalem's Latin Patriarch, Michel Sabbah, planned to visit the city of Nablus in an effort to repair Christian-Muslim relations later Sunday. Sabbah is the top Roman Catholic cleric in the Holy Land.