09/19/2006, 00.00
PALESTINE - VATICAN

Armed guards in Bethlehem churches, but Christians are on pope's side

After the attacks in Gaza and West Bank that followed the address of the pope in Germany, strong security measures have been put in place around sensitive targets. Palestinian Christians say Benedict XVI does not need to apologize; at the most, he only needs to clarify. But meanwhile, out of fear, some people have hidden their photos of the pontiff.

Bethlehem (AsiaNews) – Christians in Palestine have defended the pope in the wake of intense controversy worldwide surrounding his intervention at the University of Regensburg. From this land, symbol of coexistence between Islam and Christianity, AsiaNews gathered different views from the two communities; the people who gave them will remain anonymous for security reasons. Some speak in favour of Benedict XVI, saying he "does not need to apologize to anyone, perhaps rather to clarify some things". Others appreciate the misunderstanding created over his address on 12 September in Germany but fear an increase in tension with Muslims. Among Muslim believers, meanwhile, the most widespread sensation is "incredulity" about the "out of place" words of such an "important religious leader".

After the attacks last weekend against Christian churches in Gaza and West Bank, the Palestinian Authority tightened security around places of worship. Armed guards are keeping an extra watchful eye on churches in Bethlehem. Since 17 September, sources said, there have no further attacks against churches or Christians' property. Christians "are getting on with their lives": they go to mass, they pray, but for the moment, some "prefer to hide the photos of Benedict XVI they had at home."

Alongside fear, there is also irritation among Christians about the position taken by some within the community, who are "too critical about the pope". A lay source said: "Many of us are calling for more unity among Christians in support of the pope: we think there is nothing to apologize for, but probably just some points to clarify and perhaps tomorrow Benedict XVI will refer to the matter once again in his general audience."

"More explanations" are precisely what believers of Islam appear to want. Among Muslims, "even the most moderate", there is widespread "incredulity" about the "out of place" words of "such an important" religious leader, who could not have failed to be well aware of Islamic sensitivities about Muhammad and the Quran.

The Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem, Michel Sabbah, ranged himself on the pope's side when he appeared as a guest last Sunday on a local Christian TV channel, al-Mahed. Speaking for 35 minutes, the patriarch defended the pope "very strongly", according to viewers, and he called on the Muslim community to react in a "logical and not irrational way" to the address in Regensburg.  

Sabbah then appealed for dialogue between Christian and Muslim leaders, urging them to avoid violence and clashes in society. He also called for more courage from Europe, inviting it not to be afraid of Islam. It seems his appeal has not fallen on deaf ears. Yesterday, the European Union referred to tensions linked to the pope's address. The spokesman, Commissioner Barroso, described as "unacceptable any reaction that is disproportionate and contrary to freedom of expression".

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