- The Washington Times - Friday, March 3, 2006

From combined dispatches

NAZARETH, Israel — Three Israelis set off firecrackers inside an important Christian shrine in the boyhood home of Jesus yesterday, sparking panic among worshippers and a riot outside.

One police car was torched as a mob tried to surge past police into the Roman Catholic Church of the Annunciation in Nazareth to attack the intruders, a man and two women disguised as Christian pilgrims.

They remained holed up inside for about two hours before police were able to make their way inside and haul them away for questioning.

Nazareth, in Israel’s north, is the largest Arab town in the Jewish state, with a large number of Christian as well as Muslim Arabs.

Israeli news reports said the man was known to police and to the internal Shin Bet security service to have psychiatric problems.

He was identified as Haim Eliahu Habibi, from Jerusalem. The two women were said to be his wife and their 20-year-old daughter.

The Habibis achieved notoriety in 2002 when they sought political asylum for the wife after taking refuge in Bethlehem’s Church of the Nativity.

Internal Security Minister Gideon Ezra, who happened to be in Nazareth, confirmed that “two women and a man threw something that made a huge noise in the church.”

“The police subsequently defended them from the crowd inside the church. We called in urgent reinforcements,” he said.

The head of Israel’s police ordered security forces to provide extra protection for all holy places in the country.

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 from spiraling out of control. Local television showed them using batons and stun grenades to hold back the angry mob gathered outside.

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 persons were taken to hospitals with light injuries.

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

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

The basilica, maintained by the Franciscan Order, is the largest in the Middle East. The modern structure was consecrated in 1969.

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