By Stefan J. Bos, Chief International Correspondent BosNewsLife
GAZA CITY, GAZA STRIP (BosNewsLife) -- Armed Islamic groups angered by cartoon drawings depicting the Prophet Muhammad in European media, threatened to attack churches and closed down the European Union Commission office in Gaza Thursday, February 2, as anger over the published caricatures spread across the Muslim world.
Reporters saw a dozen Palestinian gunmen with ties to the Fatah Party approaching the office of the EU Commission, which staff members had abandoned before the militants arrived. Three jumped on the outer wall and the rest reportedly took up positions at the entrance.
A published leaflet signed by a Fatah militia and the Islamic Jihad said the EU office "and churches in Gaza could come under attack" and also urged all French citizens to leave Gaza.
The latest threats against churches added to concern among Palestinian Christians who already expressed worries over Hamas, another Islamic militant group, that recently won the Palestinian elections. Christians elsewhere in the Middle East, including in Iraq, have also said they are concerned over the cartoon row and the attacks unleashed by militants.
In the Palestinian areas, Hamas, sworn to destroy Israel, reportedly wants to use Islamic sharia law as the basis for legislation. Earlier on Wednesday night, February 1, the Fatah-affiliated Aksa Martyrs' Brigades and the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine also threatened to blow up the Danish and Norwegian consulates in the Palestinian Authority, news reports said.
EUROPEANS UNDER THREAT
In a phone call to The Associated Press (AP) news agency Thursday, February 2, a member of the Al Aqsa Martyrs' Brigades, a violent offshoot of Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas' Fatah Party, said members of his group were also asking hotel owners in the city not to host citizens of five European countries, including France and Denmark.
A statement read by one of the gunmen said that the group also demands apologies from the governments of Norway, Denmark, France and Germany and called on Palestinians to boycott the products of these countries, AP reported. Newspapers in France and Germany reprinted
Danish caricatures of the Prophet Mohammed Wednesday, February 1, in a show of solidarity with the Danish daily Jyllands-Posten, that first showed the cartoons last September.
The Budapest-based Christian Internet news agency, BosNewsLife, published two cartoons Thursday, February 2, citing "the right of all people to make an informed, non violent, judgment" on issues in the news.
Jyllands-Posten apologized for any hurt the cartoons may have caused, while the Danish government made clear it could not tell free media what to do.
DAILY REGRETS APOLOGY
But the German Welt daily, which put one of the drawings showing the prophet's turban transformed into a bomb on its front page, regretted the Danish apology. "Democracy is the institutionalized form of freedom of expression," the paper said in a front-page commentary. "There is no right to protection from satire in the West; there is a right to blasphemy." A poll on its website said nearly 60 percent (58.9%) of those voting agreed that the cartoons should be published even if they hurt religious feelings from Muslims.
It was not immediately clear Thursday, February 2, what, if any, precautions were taken by Palestinian authorities to protect local Christians and their churches against attacks from Islamic militants angered by the cartoons. Since the Hamas election victory on January 25, especially younger Palestinian Christians already expressed fear over their future, reported the Catholic News Service (CNS).
"I was shocked," 19-year old Catholic student Rami Giacaman at Bethlehem University was quoted as saying. Her family owns a souvenir shop on Manger Square in Bethlehem, West Bank. "I didn't imagine that Hamas would win. I am just a little bit concerned about things changing that may hurt us," she said.
POSSIBLE DRESS CODE?
Suheir, 24, a Catholic owner of a high-end women's clothing boutique in the Bethlehem area, who preferred not to have her last name used or the exact location of her store revealed, said she hopes Hamas "will not venture into the social sphere of Palestinian life," CNS reported. She said she is concerned that the new ruling party could try to implement dress and social codes based on Islamic law.
Such a move is expected to lead to a new wave of Christian refugees. In Bethlehem, where the Bible says Jesus was born, already over 3,000 Christians, or about 10 percent of Bethlehem's Christian population, fled the city since the Palestinian uprising began five years ago, local officials say.
Until the middle of the 20th Century Bethlehem was about 90 percent Christian, but now Muslims outnumber Christians, who make up about 35 percent of Bethlehem's 60,000 residents, according to estimates. Elsewhere in the Middle East, including Iraq, Christians have also expressed concern over Islamic extremism following church bombings this weekend in which at least three people died.
OTHER ATTACKS CONTINUE
On the same day, Saturday January, 29, Christian students at Mosul University were beaten up by Muslim students after a number of 'fatwas', or Muslim decrees, had been issued by sheikhs in that Iraqi city, said the well-informed religious rights group Barnabas Fund in a statement to BosNewsLife.
The fatwa’s reportedly call for their followers to “expel the crusaders and infidels from the streets, schools and institutions because they insulted the person of the prophet in Denmark."
However moderate Islamic clerics have strongly rejected this fatwa citing the need to comply with "the realities of the modern era," said Barnabas Fund, which has close contacts in Iraq. These clerics called for an end to the outrage over the Prophet Mohammad cartoons, BosNewsLife monitored. (With reports from the Gaza Strip, Iraq, BosNewsLife News Center and BosNewsLife Research).
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