- The Pope and the Archbishop of Canterbury launched an
urgent diplomatic initiative yesterday to try to "save the Holy Places
of the Middle East" as spiralling violence engulfed the Church of
the Nativity in Bethlehem.
- There were confused reports throughout yesterday that
the Israeli armoured advance into Bethlehem had claimed the life of a priest
from the Italian-founded Salesian order. Monsignor Pietro Sambi, the Papal
Nuncio in Israel, later apologised for "disseminating erroneous information"
about the killing.
- Catholic news agencies confirmed, however, that six nuns
from the Salesian order's church and hostel of St Mary had been wounded
in crossfire and that the hostel - renovated only two years ago for Millennium
Holy Year pilgrims - had been hit and was in flames. A mosque had also
been set on fire by Israeli shells.
- Earlier reports had named the dead priest as either Father
Jacques Assad, described as holding French nationality but of Arabic origin,
or Father Giacomo Amateis, an Italian. Father Amateis later telephoned
his order's Superior in Jerusalem, however, to say that he was "under
siege" but alive. Israeli officials and Church authorities in Jerusalem
later said that no priests had been killed during the day's fighting.
- Apache helicopters had hovered over Manger Square in
Bethlehem, firing into areas near the traditional birthplace of Jesus,
where Palestinian gunmen were hiding.
- Israel claimed that 20 armed men who sought sanctuary
in the Church of the Nativity opened fire from the shrine, but that was
denied by the Palestinians. The militia fighters were hiding from tanks
which advanced into the West Bank town before dawn yesterday, as part of
a big military operation which also saw heavy armour roll into Qalqilya,
Tulkarm, Ramallah, Jenin and villages and refugee camps around Bethlehem.
- In a statement from Lambeth Palace, the Archbishop of
Canterbury, Dr George Carey, appealed to Israelis and Palestinians to "step
back from the brink of catastrophe".
- Dr Carey said: "As a Christian leader, this appalling
wave of violence and bloodshed at Eastertide, enveloping as it now has
the town of Bethlehem, is especially disturbing." The archbishop said
that he had recently returned from the Holy Land and was "convinced
more than ever that the international community must redouble its efforts
to help the two ancient peoples, Jews and Arabs, to find a lasting peace".
Violence was a dead end, and "we are witnessing an increasingly polarised
situation in which dangerously simplistic diagnoses provoke equally dangerous
- JoaquÌn Navarro-Valls, the chief Vatican spokesman,
said that the Pope had told the Vatican's diplomatic service to make urgent
contact with the Governments of Israel and the US as well as the Palestinian
leadership and the Arab League, to prevent further violence and damage
in the birthplace of Jesus.
- The Pope visited the Holy Land Two years ago and knelt
in prayer in the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem.
- "The Holy Father is continually following the evolution
of the dramatic situation in the Middle East" Dr Navarro-Valls said.
The fighting around the Church of the Nativity signalled "a new and
dramatic stage in the violence of which the Holy See must take account".