Catholic compound ransacked in Gaza

Gaza City, Gaza Strip - A school and convent belonging to the Gaza Strip's tiny Roman Catholic community were ransacked, burned and looted during clashes around a major security headquarters, the head of the community said Monday.

Crosses were broken, a statue of Jesus was damaged, and prayer books were burnt at the Rosary Sisters School and nearby convent, said Father Manuel Musallem, head of Gaza's Latin church.

The damage took place on Thursday, but wasn't reported until days later because of the chaos that has prevailed since Islamic Hamas militants wrested power in Gaza, Musallem said. The religious compound is located near a key security headquarters Hamas captured Thursday on the final day of its Gaza takeover.

Gunmen used the roof of the school during the fighting, and the convent was "desecrated," Mussalem said.

"Nothing happens by mistake these days," he said.

Seven computers were removed, but three were brought back after the vandalism was reported to the deposed prime minister in Gaza, Ismail Haniyeh.

Haniyeh condemned the attack on the religious compound and President Mahmoud Abbas of the rival Fatah movement said in statement late Sunday that the "barbaric" attack was the act of Hamas' militia.

"There may be some in Hamas who wanted to cause strife between Muslims and Christians," Musallem said.

Hamas lawmaker Salah Bardawil denied that Hamas had a hand in the vandalism.

"The Christians are our brothers in Gaza and everywhere, and we will protect their holy places and school, as we do our Islamic schools," he said. "But there are some dirty elements who work to harm Hamas' image ... and relations, but this will not happen."

Earlier this month, Pope Benedict XVI lamented the plight of Christians in the Middle East, and said he was praying that the ancient communities remain despite the "apparently unstoppable violence."

The pope spoke out about Christians in the Holy Land, Iraq and Lebanon during a speech to clergymen from the area shortly after holding his first meeting with Bush at the Vatican.