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Last Updated: Sunday, 5 March 2006, 11:27 GMT
Israel church attackers 'sorry'
Haim Eliahu Habibi escorted by police
Police say Mr Habibi had a history of threatening behaviour
An Israeli couple who triggered riots after discharging fireworks in a revered church in Nazareth have expressed remorse for their actions.

Haim Eliahu Habibi told a court he did not hate Christians or Muslims, saying he targeted the church to draw attention to a child custody issue.

Dozens of people were hurt in clashes following the incident on Friday night.

On Saturday, hundreds of Israeli Arabs protested in Nazareth, accusing Israel of failing to prevent the attack.

'Illogical'

Mr Habibi, 44, his wife, Violet, and their 20-year-old daughter, Odelia, appeared in court in the northern Israeli town of Tiberias on Saturday.

Mr Habibi denied his actions had a nationalistic motive.

"I have nothing against Muslims or Christians. It is not logical for me to do such a thing to them, on the contrary. The only thing I want to do is get my children back," he said.

Mrs Habibi, who participated in the attack, apologised for what had happened.

"I am deeply sorry. I am not against anyone. I hope we will be forgiven," she said.

Athough Mr Habibi is Jewish, the Israeli media have said Mrs Habibi is Christian.

Media reports say three of the couple's other children were taken into care by social services in the past.

The court ordered the family to be kept in custody for 15 days.

Protest march

On Friday night, the Habibis entered the Church of the Annunciation in the northern Israeli town and set off firecrackers, causing pandemonium.

The Israeli Arab public is at the edge of its patience
Shawki Khatib
Israeli Arab leader
Police and security forces poured into the area as rioting broke out outside the church, where Christians believe the Angel Gabriel appeared to Mary to foretell the birth of Jesus.

Some 13 police officers and a similar number of civilians were hurt in ensuing scuffles.

Mr Habibi was shielded by police and priests inside the church and was reportedly led to safety dressed in a police uniform to avoid being attacked.

Mr Habibi and his wife achieved notoriety in 2003 when they threatened to blow themselves up in the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem before giving themselves up.

They also once asked the late Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat for political asylum, claiming persecution by Israeli authorities.

Thousands of Israeli Arabs marched through the town on Saturday, accusing Israel of mistreating its Arab minority.

"The Israeli Arab public is at the edge of its patience and it is time for Israel's leaders to do something about it," Shawki Khatib, chairman of the Higher Arab Monitoring Committee, told Israel Radio, Reuters news agency reported.

Israeli Arabs form about 20% of Israel's population and have frequently complained of discrimination.


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