Assailants throw firecrackers into Israeli church

Riots engulfed one of Christianity's holiest sites after attackers threw firecrackers into the church on Friday.
Riots engulfed one of Christianity's holiest sites after attackers threw firecrackers into the church on Friday.MSNBC
/ Source: The Associated Press

A couple with a history of psychiatric troubles entered one of Christianity’s holiest sites on Friday and began throwing firecrackers, sparking a large riot in this biblical town in northern Israel, police said. The assailants were not believed to be linked to any Jewish nationalist group.

At least eight people were injured as police raced to bring the situation under control.

Police officials said the couple, joined by a woman, were dressed as Christian pilgrims when they entered the Basilica of the Annunciation.

Israeli Public Security Minister Gideon Ezra said the attack did not appear to have nationalist motivations. He said the husband is Jewish and the wife is Christian. He also said he had been in touch with local Christian leaders to calm the tensions.

“It is very important to put out this small flame so that won’t become a huge fire,” he told Israel’s Channel 10 TV.

Authorities removed the attackers from the church within hours after an angry mob of several thousand people had blocked police from entering the building late Friday.

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

A witness who identified herself only by her first name, Rouan, said the church was crowded with worshippers praying for the coming Easter holiday at the time of the attack.

“We heard a boom. It went on for six or seven minutes,” she said. “I thought we were going to die.” She said the blast left black spots on the walls inside, but did not appear to cause any major damage.

Couple questioned earlier this week
Police officials said the couple — identified as Haim Eliahu Habibi and his wife Violet — were known to authorities, and have been treated for psychiatric problems in the past. The officials said authorities had questioned the couple this week and threatened to place their children in foster care.

The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak to the media. There was no information on the third assailant.

Israeli newspaper Al Haaretz said Habibi has been interrogated in the past for saying he intended to attack churches in Israel. The newspaper also said the third attacker was Violet and Haim Eliahu Habibi’s daughter.

Protesters, police injured
Rescue workers said at least two protesters were wounded in the unrest, and others were suffering from tear gas inhalation. Five police officers were injured, officials said.

When an ambulance arrived, the crowd attacked the vehicle, breaking windows and forcing it to turn away. Police said special commando units were being dispatched to the scene.

Khalil Hadad, a witness who was trapped inside the courtyard, said there did not appear to be any serious damage to the building.

The church is at the site where Christians believe the Angel Gabriel appeared before the Virgin Mary and foretold the birth of Jesus.

** FILE ** Catholics pray during a mass led by Latin Patriarch Michel Sabbah for the late Pope John Paul II at the Basilica of Annunciation in Nazareth, northern Israel, in this Sunday April 3 , 2005 file photo. Three Jewish attackers entered the Basilica, one of Christianity's holiest sites, on Friday and began throwing firecrackers, sparking a large riot in this biblical town, police said. At least seven people were injured as police struggled to bring the situation under control.(AP Photo/Ariel Schalit/File) Ariel Schalit / AP

Nazareth, the boyhood town of Jesus, is located in northern Israel. It is inhabited by Christian and Muslim Arabs, and 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.

Israeli Arabs make up about 20 percent of Israel’s population.

While they are entitled to Israeli citizenship, in contrast to Palestinian residents of the West Bank and Gaza Strip, Israel’s Arab minority complains of systematic discrimination at the hands of the Jewish majority.

Despite tensions, violence between Jewish and Arab Israelis is rare. Last August, a Jewish army deserter killed four Israeli Arabs in a shooting rampage on a bus. The attacker was killed by a mob.