- BETHLEHEM, West Bank (AP)
- Christian leaders called on Israel to leave this biblical city after
a gunbattle and fire erupted Monday around the Church of the Nativity,
site of a weeklong standoff between Israeli soldiers and armed Palestinians
that appeared to be straining delciate relations between Israel and the
- The Vatican said it was following the situation with
"extreme apprehension," and trying to verify what happened. But
it also reminded Israel of a 1993 pledge not to interfere at holy places
and warned that it was hearing information that, if true, "would lead
to the aggravation of an already dramatic situation."
- Some church officials, including a Franciscan friar who
briefed senior Vatican officials on the situation, were less diplomatic,
angrily accusing Israel of provoking the unprecedented violence around
one of Christianity's holiest shrines.
- A senior Israeli army officer said two Israeli border
policemen, wounded when they came under fire from Palestinian gunmen inside
the compound, had thrown a smoke bomb that sparked the blaze. But the Rev.
David Jaeger of the office of the Custodian of Catholic sites in the Holy
Land called the pre-dawn clash and fire an Israeli attack that violates
"every canon of human decency. It shreds the credibility of the people
who launched it."
- The fire burned in a second-floor meeting hall above
the courtyard of St. Catherine's church adjacent to the Church of the
which is built over the grotto where tradition says Jesus was born. The
blaze destroyed a piano, chairs, altar cloths and ceremonial cups belonging
to St. Catherine's, the site of midnight Mass every Christmas in
- Palestinians in the compound said an Israeli soldier
shot and killed a Palestinian policeman, 23-year-old Khaled Syam, as he
went to put out the fire.
- The senior Israeli officer, speaking on condition of
anonymity, said Palestinians signaled gunmen in a bell tower to fire on
two Israeli border police manning a nearby rooftop lookout. Gunmen inside
the compound fired rifles and threw hand grenades, and soldiers returning
fire killed a Palestinian, he said.
- A Catholic missionary news agency in Rome quoted the
Rev. Giovanni Battistelli, the Franciscan's top representative in the Holy
Land, as disputing the Israeli version: "Nobody opened fire from
the basilica compound. It was an attack carried out by Israeli
- Israeli forces moved into Bethlehem shortly after
their 11-day-old offensive in the West Bank, an operation targeting
groups that have carried out terror attacks in Israel. More than 200 armed
Palestinians, including police and militiamen, have been holed up in the
church for a week.
- Relations between the Vatican and Israel, formalized
only in 1993, long have been sensitive, largely because of differences
over Pope Pius XII's role during the Holocaust and the Israeli-Palestinian
crisis. Critics of Pius maintain he failed to speak out and use his
to protect European Jews from the Nazis. The Vatican, which plans to
Pius and put him on the path to sainthood, maintains he used discreet
to try to help Jews.
- Leaders of other Christian denominations in the Holy
Land have supported the Franciscans' position about the Church of the
issuing a statement urging Israeli forces to "go in peace" from
- But Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, who also is
under growing U.S. pressure to pull out of West Bank Palestinian cities
immediately, told parliament Monday that soldiers would surround the church
until the gunmen surrender.
- "Since it is not our aim to desecrate the sanctity
of the place, as the murderers who took control of the spot and took the
clerics hostage are doing, we expect the international community to demand
that they lay down their arms and leave the holy place," Sharon told
parliament. "Until then, the (Israeli army) will remain in
- Franciscans, who deny the 60 clergymen in the church
compound are hostages, said the clerics will remain in place throughout
- Israel's Foreign Ministry tried to ease the growing
of not only Roman Catholic leaders in Jerusalem but also those of other
Christian denominations, meeting privately with them Monday evening.
- Foreign Ministry spokesman Yaffa Ben-Ari said Israel
initiated the meeting to "find ways to alleviate the pressures of
- She said church leaders asked Israel not to take any
actions that would further harm the church and that Deputy Foreign Minister
Michael Melchior "expressed the promise to make sure we will keep
the sanctity of life and church."
- Rabbi David Rosen, director of inter-religious affairs
at the American Jewish Committee, said the situation is serious and he
expects the Vatican is frustrated but that the threat of the church
undermining relations appears worse than it is.
- Rosen, who helped negotiate the 1993 agreement
formal ties, said the Vatican understands that the assessment of events
at the church compound from some of its Christian leaders in the Holy Land
is colored by their views as Palestinians.
- About 2 percent of the 3 million Palestinians in the
West Bank and Gaza are Christian.
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