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Monday, 8 April, 2002, 16:19 GMT 17:19 UK
Vatican outrage over church siege
Smoke rises over the Church of the Nativity
Israel says the fire broke out by accident
The Vatican has issued a stern warning to Israel to respect religious sites in line with its international obligations, following a gun battle around Bethlehem's besieged Church of the Nativity.

Spokesman Joaquin Navarro-Valls said the Vatican was following events "with extreme apprehension" and trying to establish the truth about the fighting that flared early on Monday.

This is an act of indescribable barbarity, a violation of every law of humanity and civilisation

Father David Jaeger
Franciscan spokesman

Israel says its troops are under orders not to fire at holy places and blamed Palestinian militants for a fire near the church, which is revered by Christians as the birthplace of Jesus Christ.

Several hundred Palestinian gunmen and civilians fleeing Israeli tanks have been holed up in the church complex for nearly a week, along with a group of monks and nuns.

A spokesman for Catholic monks in the Holy Land said earlier that Israeli soldiers were guilty of an "indescribable act of barbarity".

Israel had broken its international obligations and risked "long-term and incalculable" consequences, Father David Jaeger said.

The Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem, Michel Sabbah, protests along with other clerics on Monday
Christian clerics from Jerusalem were kept by Israel from entering Bethlehem on Monday
Speaking from Rome, he said monks at the church had reported damage to "sacred spaces" and evidence that Israeli troops had entered the church.

The Pope, who has urged people to pray for peace in the Middle East, on Monday described the violence in the Holy Land as having reached "unimaginable and intolerable" levels.

  Click here for a guide to the Church of the Nativity

The Israeli army says Palestinian gunmen provoked a fire which broke out near the Church of the Nativity on Monday.

Gunmen had opened fire from a belltower, wounding two Israeli border policemen in a nearby rooftop look-out, an army officer told Reuters news agency.

Palestinian man escorts a disabled man to a doctor in Bethlehem on Monday
Palestinian civilians in Bethlehem have to contend with an Israeli curfew
He said the Israelis returned fire and a smoke grenade started the blaze in a second-floor meeting hall overlooking the Basilica of St Catherine, adjacent to the Church of the Nativity.

One Palestinian gunman was shot dead in the battle, the Israeli source said.

But a priest inside the church, Father Amjad Sabbara, told the BBC that the Palestinian killed was a police officer who had been trying to douse the flames.

He said the blaze had burned for an hour, destroying a piano, chairs, altar cloths and ceremonial cups.

Father Sabbara estimated that there were 240 people in the church. Some were armed, he said, but they were "not using their arms".

The Mayor of Bethlehem, Hanna Nasser, told the BBC that mosaics inside the Basilica of St Catherine had been "affected by the bullets".

Staying put

The Israeli army has been conducting a major military operation across the West Bank for over a week, in response to a wave of suicide bombings by Palestinian militants.

The army will remain in their place and prevent them [the militants] from evading justice

Ariel Sharon
Israeli Prime Minister

"It really involves going through the cities and refugee camps and taking out the infrastructure of the terrorists: weapons, documents, explosive material, laboratories," army spokesman Captain Jacob Dalal told the BBC.

Israeli troops have been using loudspeakers to demand the surrender of the Palestinians inside the Nativity complex.

Prime Minister Ariel Sharon said on Monday that his soldiers would not "defile the holiness of the site as the [Palestinians] have" but added that the troops would remain in place until the gunmen inside were captured.

In Britain, Foreign Office Minister Ben Bradshaw described Israeli actions in the area as "totally unacceptable".

The Vatican is reported to be working out an agreement with the Israelis on safe passage for the Palestinians inside the church to the Gaza Strip.

Father Amjad Sabbara inside Church of the Nativity
"We don't want to leave"
See also:

04 Apr 02 | Middle East
Church with a turbulent history
08 Apr 02 | Middle East
Sharon unmoved by US pressure
08 Apr 02 | Middle East
Powell's peace mission
08 Apr 02 | Middle East
UN Security Council's growing anger
07 Apr 02 | Middle East
Pope calls for Mid-East peace
05 Apr 02 | Middle East
UN to probe Mid-East 'rights abuses'
08 Apr 02 | Middle East
In pictures: Bethlehem's woes
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