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Senior Hamas leader Mahmoud al-Zahar met Thursday with Gaza's Latin Bishop Manuel Musalam to confirm that the Islamic organization would provide protection for the entire Christian community in the coastal territory.

Al-zahar's comments comes as Palestinian gunmen across the Palestinian territories threatened violence and demanded an apology for caricatures of the Prophet Mohammad that appeared in European newspapers. In one incident, a German citizen was kidnapped by gunmen and shortly released in the town of Nablus.

While visiting the Holy Family school in Gaza, al-Zahar told Bishop Musalam, "Hamas is ready to place the Izz al-Din al-Qassam militant wing at churches and schools across Gaza until the authority of the Palestinian police is transferred to the new government".

The gesture is seen as one of a myriad of attempts by the Islamic organization to assert its control and gain legitimacy after winning a landslide victory in last week's Palestinian Legislative Elections, beating out President Mahmoud Abbas's leading Fatah party.

Palestinian Authority security officials said that gunmen from a militant faction in Chairman Mahmoud Abbas's Fatah faction seized Christoph Kasten, 21, from a hotel coffee shop in the city of Nablus and took him to an empty field before releasing him.

The rare kidnapping in the West Bank took Muslim anger to a new level in a controversy over balancing Western freedom of the press with religious sensibilities.

Islamic tradition prohibits realistic depictions of prophets, and considers caricatures of them blasphemous.

Elsewhere in Nablus, armed Palestinians shut down a French cultural center, witnesses said.

Foreign diplomats and journalists began pulling out of the Palestinian areas and two countries closed diplomatic offices Thursday after masked Palestinian gunmen threatened to kidnap foreigners.

Palestinian gunmen in the West Bank were reported searching several hotels and apartments for foreigners to kidnap, and militants in Gaza briefly surrounded the local office of the EU Commission. Some Palestinian shoppers said they would boycott European products.

Earlier Thursday, Norway closed its representative office in the West Bank to the public after receiving threats from armed groups in the region angered by the publishing of cartoons that depicted the prophet Mohammed in a Norwegian newspaper. The office's staff, however, remained at work.

"We look upon this situation as very serious and we are closing our office to the public," foreign ministry spokesman Rune Bjaastad said.

He did not say when the office in Al Ram in the West Bank would reopen. Nine Norwegian diplomats and 14 local staff work in the office, he said.

Mohammed blasphemy row intensifiesAn international row over newspaper cartoons of the Prophet Mohammed gathered pace on Thursday as more European dailies printed Danish caricatures of him and Muslims stepped up pressure to stop them.

About a dozen Palestinian gunmen surrounded European Union offices in the Gaza Strip demanding an apology for the cartoons, one of which shows Islam's founder wearing a bomb-shaped turban.

The owner of France Soir, a Paris daily that reprinted them on Wednesday along with one German and two Spanish papers, sacked its managing editor to show "a strong sign of respect for the beliefs and intimate convictions of every individual."

But the tabloid staunchly defended its right to print the cartoons. Switzerland's Le Temps and La Tribune de Geneve ran some of them on Thursday, as did Magyar Hirlap in Budapest. Some European dailies ran cartoons making fun of the controversy.

Iraqi Islamic leaders urged worshippers to stage demonstrations from Baghdad to the southern city of Basra following main weekly prayer services Friday. Hundreds of Pakistani protesters chanted "Death to France!"

Afghanistan's president and Indonesia's Foreign Ministry condemned the cartoons, and Iran's Foreign Ministry summoned the Austrian ambassador, whose country holds the EU presidency, to protest the publication.

The furor cuts to the question of which is more sacred in the Western world - freedom of expression or respect for religious beliefs.

Danish Prime Minister Anders Fogh Rasmussen said the issue had gone beyond a row between Copenhagen and the Muslim world and now centred on Western free speech versus taboos in Islam, which is now the second religion in many European countries.

"We are talking about an issue with fundamental significance to how democracies work," Rasmussen told the Copenhagen daily Politiken. "One can safely say it is now an even bigger issue."

The clash has commercial repercussions. Danish companies have reported sales falling in the Middle East after protests against the cartoons in the Arab world and calls for boycotts.

Reaction to the cartoons in Middle East countries has been scathing.

"In the West, one discovers there are different moral ceilings and all moral parameters and measures are not equal," wrote the pan-Arab daily Asharq al-Awsat.

"If the Danish cartoon had been about a Jewish rabbi, it would never have been published."

Saudi Interior Minister Prince Nayef said Riyadh considered the cartoons an insult to Mohammed and all Muslims. "We hope that religious centres like the Vatican will clarify their opinion in this respect," he told the state news agency SPA.

In Beirut, the leader of Lebanon's Shi'ite Hizbollah said the row would never had occurred if a 17-year-old death edict against British writer Salman Rushdie been carried out.

"Had a Muslim carried out Imam Khomeini's fatwa against the apostate Salman Rushdie, then those lowlifers would not have dared discredit the Prophet, not in Denmark, Norway or France," Hezbollah head Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah said on Wednesday night.

Saudi Arabia, the birthplace of Mohammad, and Syria have recalled their ambassadors to Denmark.