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GAZA CITY - A blast Friday near Gaza City`s oldest church caused no casualties or damage, but analysts fear the attack is a sign of the explosive violence Pope Benedict XVI`s comments on Islam could spark.

The blast was caused by a grenade which exploded outside a Christian youth association building in the same compound as the church, witnesses said.

The head of the Roman Catholic church implicitly linked Islam to cruelty in a statement three days ago, provoking an outpouring of fury from the Middle East and other parts of the Muslim world.

Among those joining the chorus Friday were the outgoing Hamas prime minister Ismail Haniya, senior Muslim clerics in Iraq and Iran, as well as the Pakistani parliament and Afghan foreign ministry.

"In the name of the Palestinian people, we condemn the pope`s remarks on Islam. These remarks go against the truth and touch the heart of our faith," Haniya said after weekly Muslim prayers in a Gaza mosque.

"The pope should revise his comments and stop attacking Islam, which is the religion of more than 1.5 billion people in the world," he added.

The region, already blighted by brutal conflicts, was at risk of further violence once word spread further of the pope`s statement during a German university lecture on Tuesday, said Middle East expert Antoine Basbous.

"Certain Arab media, from now on, will begin covering this subject in their newspapers, which can only cause reactions," Basbous, of France`s Observatory of Arab Countries, said by telephone from Paris.

Basbous said he feared the angry reactions to the pope`s comments were increasing and could soon snowball into something like the deadly worldwide protests that followed a Danish newspaper`s decision to publish satirical cartoons of the Prophet Mohammed in September last year.

Abdel Moneim Abul Futuh, a senior official of Egypt`s main opposition Muslim Brotherhood, told AFP he envisaged "an extreme reaction to the remarks by the pope, which undermine Islam more than the cartoons because they emanate from a chief representing millions of people, and not from a journalist".

Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Abul Gheit had "fears that the declarations by the pope did nothing but reinforce calls for a war of the civilizations," said his spokesman Alaa Al-Hadidi.

In response to the Muslim backlash against his comments, Benedict`s official spokesman said the pope respected Islam but rejected violence motivated by religion.

But Emad Gad, an analyst at the Al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies in Cairo, said: "I do not think that excuses would be enough to calm the anger".

Another problem was that Ramadan, the Muslim month of fasting, was due to start by the end of next week.

"Such a speech can be made profitable by extremists" to exacerbate the feelings of the faithful, noted the Al-Ahram analyst.

"Traditionally, Ramadan is also a month of combat where supporters of the jihad galvanise the warlike heat of the `soldiers of God` against Crusaders and non-believers," said Gad.

09/15/2006 13:08 GMT

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