• PALESTINE \ Nov 24, 2004
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    'Peeping Tom' sparks Muslim-Christian riot near Bethlehem
'Peeping Tom' sparks Muslim-Christian riot near Bethlehem By Reuters "It was like a war," said Nahle, a resident.

The first explosion of violence between Christians and Muslims in the area for years began when a Muslim man sneaked a camera into a changing room and snapped several pictures of a woman dressing, residents said.

The man, from a nearby Muslim town, raced to a taxi with the shopowner in pursuit. But he was forced to flee to a mosque when dozens of Beit Sahur residents arrived and began smashing the taxi, which they later torched.

By then, Christians and Muslims involved in the dispute had called in reinforcements, witnesses said.

The Muslims demanded police free the man, who was badly beaten during the melee, residents said. But the suspect was arrested and taken to a local jail.

"Then the clashes really started," said Nahle. "They were fighting with sticks and stones, and extra police had to come from Ramallah and Bethlehem to stop it," he said.

Police tried to quell the fighting by firing volleys in the air with automatic rifles, but violence only died down when the Bethlehem district governor imposed a curfew on the predominantly Christian town.

Two people were taken to hospital with moderate injuries and scores more suffered cuts and bruises, medics said.

Streets were littered with stones on Wednesday morning and shops opened slowly as residents crept cautiously from their homes.

Palestinian Tourism Minister Metri Abu Aita, a Bethlehem resident, said a six day "timeout" had been called for the communities to hold talks.

Inter-religious tension has been brewing for some time in the Bethlehem area, where Christians number only around 20 percent of the population despite making up a majority of the population less than a century ago.

The exodus of more affluent Christians has grown since a Palestinian uprising began in September 2000.

Many Christians say they feel uneasy at a rise of Islamic radicalism during nearly four years of conflict with Israel, growing numbers of Muslims moving to Bethlehem from elsewhere and Israel Defense Forces operations and checkpoints in the Bethlehem area.