'I have nothing against Christians or Muslims'
Man who attacked Nazareth church tells court he acted out of distress; suspects get 15-day remand extensions.
The Tiberias Magistrate's Court issued Saturday evening a 15-day remand extension for the three family members suspected of detonating fireworks in the Basilica of the Annunciation in Nazareth the night before.
One of the suspects, Violet Habibi, collapsed on the way out of the courthouse. An ambulance arrived at the scene to give her medical treatment.
Police rescued the Habibi family members from the church after they detonated fireworks during a prayer service. Ensuing riots lightly injured 13 police officers and 13 civilians. Four cars were set on fire, including two police vehicles.
Haim Habibi, husband of Violet and father of Odelia, the third suspect, said during the court hearing, "I have nothing against Christians or Muslims," adding that he would like to thank the security forces who protected him from rioters during the incident. "I didn't do anything... I didn't hurt anyone. All I want is my three children that were cruelly taken from me by the state."
Violet said during the hearing, "We had no choice, we wanted our baby back. We're not against anyone, we've never committed a crime or an injustice. We are in serious distress and I hope we will be forgiven."
The hearing revealed that Haim Habibi took the lead role in planning the incident, and that Odelia had asked her parents not to go ahead with the plan. She also said that she was beaten by worshippers after the act.
Attorney Pninat Yanay, who is representing the family, said that the couple are stunned by the repercussions of the incident and want to apologize for what they've done. "Since their child was taken from them at the beginning of the week, they have been wandering around dazed and rejected by various courts. They are very sorry about the incident and feel indebted to the church, which has helped them financially to find shelter in hotels when they had nowhere to go," she said.
Odelia told police earlier that the act was motivated by "economic distress." Jerusalem welfare services are familiar with the couple, after their children were taken away from them.
Thousands marched through Nazareth on Saturday afternoon in protest of the attempted attack on the church.
Several thousand people - led by Latin Patriarch Michel Sabbah, local Christian leaders and Arab lawmakers - joined the protest, snaking through the town's narrow streets to the basilica. Marchers clapped and sang songs, amid the chiming of church bells.
Participants held up Palestinian flags and banners with slogans such as "Israel breeds hate" and "they accuse us of terrorism but they do terrorism." The demonstration ended peacefully and in a bid to avoid raising tensions, Acting Prime Minister Ehud Olmert ordered police stayed away from the event.
At the end of the parade, Sabbah said that Israel's existence depends on relations between ethnic groups, and demanded that the government ensure the ability of all sides to live in peace.
Tensions continued to run high on Saturday, and the police decided to postpone 11 soccer games that were supposed to take place in the north of the country.
According to police, Haim Eliyahu Habibi, 44, has a history of mental illness. The assailants were not believed to be linked to any ultra-nationalist Jewish group.
The government will meet Sunday to discuss the incident and hear reports from senior defense officials.
According to Amakim District Police chief Commander Yaakov Zigdon, the family members got hold of the firecrackers in the Tel Aviv area. A small gas canister was found in the Tel Aviv hotel in which they were staying before the attack.
Towards evening, Habibi, his Christian wife Violet and their daugther hid the firecrackers and small gas canisters in a baby stroller and detonated the firecrackers inside the church during a special prayer for the opening of Lent. They were disguised as Christian pilgrims.
Channel 10 TV News reported the Shin Bet domestic security service said Habibi is known to have a history of mental illness. Habibi had attempted to attack churches in the past, notably the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem and Jerusalem's Church of the Holy Sepulcher.
Habibi had even made his way to the Ramallah headquarters of former Palestinian Authority chairman Yasser Arafat several years ago, claiming that Israeli authorities were attempting to confiscate his daughter. At the time, Habibi told Arafat he wanted to remain in PA-controlled territory.
Assailant taken out disguised as policemanLarge police forces, including special riot-control units, were dispatched to the scene to repel thousands of people who gathered in an attempt to enter the compound and attack the suspects. Police used stun grenades to disperse the crowd. After being held up for more than three hours inside the church, police finally managed to extract the three. According to one report, the man was taken out disguised as a policeman.
Public Security Minister Gideon Ezra said the attack did not appear to have nationalist motivations and that 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 Channel 10 TV.
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.
Nazareth Mayor Ramez Juraisi and Deputy Mayor Ali Salaam also attempted to persuade the crowds to disperse.
Ezra said police efforts to extricate the three assailants were initially prevented by the large crowd. A Magen David Adom ambulance crew was also unable to leave the church due to the angry mob.
At one point, the crowd attacked an ambulance, smashing the vehicle's windows.
By 8:45 P.M., Police Major General Dan Ronen, commander of the northern district, said that the situation around the church had been brought under control. In the wake of the incident, police commissioner Moshe Karadi ordered security beefed up at holy sites around Israel.
Wadiya Abu Nasser, Advisor to the Latin Archbishop, told Haaretz that a full report of the incident had been passed on to the Vatican and directly to the pope's office. Abu Nasser reported Vatican sources describing the incident as very serious.
Khalil Hadad, a journalist situated in the church, told Haaretz the structure was lightly damaged when a stampede broke out and worshippers attempted to flee after the firecrackers went off.
Israeli Arab MKs responded angrily to the attack and complained that Habibi had not been arrested after his past threats to attack churches.
The basilica is built at the site of the Annunciation, where according to Christian faith the Virgin Mary was told by archangel Gabriel she had been chosen by God to bear His son, Jesus.
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.
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