Attacks on an ancient church in the Gaza Strip following the pope's recent comments about Islam have shaken the area's tiny Christian minority, bringing to the surface long-simmering tensions and raising new questions about how long the community can survive.
Gaza Christians say recent outbursts of violence have left them worried about their fragile status in this conservative Muslim society.
Fearing for their safety, few worshippers attended Sunday services at one of the main churches, which was repeatedly attacked with homemade explosives Friday, and some parents kept their children home from school. In a reflection of the sensitive situation, the top Roman Catholic cleric in the Holy Land criticized the pope's comments as hurtful - a rare criticism of the Vatican.
Violence has also hit the West Bank, where there is a larger Christian population. Two churches were attacked Sunday, including a 170-year-old stone structure inTulkarem whose entire inside was destroyed. A day earlier, attackers hurled firebombs and opened fire at five churches in the West Bank and Gaza.
Palestinian Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh, of the Islamic Hamas group, called on Palestinians on Sunday to refrain from sectarian strife.
"All Palestinian citizens must prevent all harm to all Christian churches on Palestinian land. Our Christian brothers are citizens of Palestine. They are Palestinians," he said.
The violence began last week after Pope Benedict XVI, in a talk rejecting religious motivation for violence, cited the words of a Byzantine emperor who characterized some of the teachings of the Prophet Muhammad as "evil and inhuman," particularly "his command to spread by the sword the faith."
Pope Benedict XVI said Sunday that he was "deeply sorry" about the angry reaction to his remarks.
Latin Patriarch Michel Sabbah, the top Catholic official in the region, traveled to the West Bank city of Nablus on Sunday to try to calm tensions. In rare criticism of the Vatican by a church official, Sabbah said he wished the pope had used different language.
"Making this remark was hurtful to Islam and to the prophet. I wish he had not said it but he did," Sabbah told a crowd of about 250 Muslims and Christians in a damaged Catholic church.
Christians are believed to number about 50,000 people in the West Bank, Gaza and east Jerusalem, about 2 percent of the Palestinian population there. Gaza's tiny Christian community - estimated at several thousand people - lives among 1.4 million mostly conservative Muslims.
Interfaith relations are generally good - though tensions periodically flare.
The recent outbreak of violence scared Esther Najjar, a Catholic Palestinian from Gaza who kept her two youngest girls home from school Saturday.
"I was afraid. First they attacked the church, and then there was that protest against the pope," she said. "Some of the protesters tried to come down this street, and we were terrified they'd attack the houses. But our Muslim neighbors stopped the protesters."
Bishop Alexious of St. Perfidious church, a 1,400-year-old Greek Orthodox Church in Gaza City, said most worshippers stayed home from Sunday services after the church was repeatedly hit by homemade explosives on Friday. Bishop Alexious said he feared for the existence of his tiny flock.
The attacks on the church were the first in recent memory, residents said.
The main concern for Gaza's Christians remained keeping their dwindling community from disappearing through emigration and intermarriage, said Constantine Sabbagh, the coordinator of the Middle East Council of Churches in Gaza, a secular organization that runs development projects.
"We are Arab Palestinians who belong to the Christian faith," he said. "There must be respect of the other, and we are not going to hide in houses, or in ghettos. The Muslims we mix with accept us, but there's a lot of ignorance out there."
Rosette Sayyegh said she was publicly insulted Saturday while shopping in Gaza when she wore a knee-high blue skirt, a matching blue shirt and a large golden cross.
"An old, bearded, respectable looking man wearing a white robe stood in front of me and said, 'I spit on your cross.' What was I to do?" she asked. "I'm not going to hide my cross, and I'm not going to cover my hair."
But she said many others covered their hair to avoid being recognized as Christians.
"It's not the first time," Sayyegh said. "It's been like this for years. But I'm not going anywhere. I'm Arab and Palestinian."