March 3, 2006

Israelis set off firecrackers in church

By Rami Amichai

NAZARETH, Israel (Reuters) - Three Israelis set off
firecrackers inside an important Christian shrine in the Arab
Israeli town of Nazareth on Friday, sparking panic among
worshippers and a mass brawl outside.

One police car was torched as protesters tried to surge
past police into the Roman Catholic Church of the Annunciation,
where the three -- a man and two women -- were holed up. Police
later removed them and took them away for questioning.

Officials said the incident was prompted by personal
grievances they had against the government.

Nazareth, in Israel's north, is the largest Arab town in
the Jewish state. The incident lasted for around two hours.

"I can say that they have been extricated and we are taking
them in for questioning," senior police officer Yaakov Zigdon
said from the scene.

The church is one of Christianity's most important sites in
the Holy Land. It was undamaged, officials said.

Television reports said the man, a Jew, was a Jerusalem
resident known to police and security services as having a
history of threatening to attack churches.

Police mobilized anti-riot and anti-terrorist units to try
to prevent the incident spiraling out of control. Local
television showed them using batons and stun grenades to keep
protesters back.

While police said all three intruders were Jews, Israeli
television said one of the women was Christian.

Israel's Magen David Adom ambulance service said a brawl
erupted outside after the firecrackers were set off, and that
two people were taken to hospital with light injuries.

Channel 2 television said the three Israelis entered the
church with a child's pram and started throwing firecrackers.
They also had gas canisters in the pram, it said.

Arabs make up about 20 percent of the Jewish state's
population. Nazareth has a sizeable Christian community.

The Church of the Annunciation is built above a sunken
grotto where, according to Roman Catholic tradition, the angel
Gabriel told the Virgin Mary that she was to bear Jesus, the
son of God.