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Tuesday, 30 April, 2002, 11:50 GMT 12:50 UK
Pope to send Mid-East envoy
Pope John Paul II
The Pope has "a desire for peace in the Holy Land"
The Pope is to send an envoy to the Middle East on a peace mission.

The envoy, Cardinal Roger Etchegaray, will leave for Jerusalem on Wednesday.

His mission is expected to focus in particular on the siege at the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, which Christians believe stands on the birthplace of Jesus Christ.

Cardinal Roger Etchegaray
Cardinal Etchegaray is a close aide to the pontiff

The Pope has made clear his distress at seeing the shrine caught up in the conflict.

Cardinal Etchegaray is president of the Vatican's peace and justice council and one of the Pope's closest aides.

Vatican spokesman Joaquin Navarro-Valls said the mission was prompted by the pontiff's "desire for peace in the Holy Land and his concern for the Christian community and the Israeli and Palestinian peoples".

More than 200 people, including a group of armed Palestinians, have been holed up inside the church compound since 2 April and are surrounded by Israeli troops.

  Click here for Nativity siege timeline

Israel insists that about 30 of the Palestinian fighters are on its list of wanted militants.

It wants to exile them or put them on trial while the Palestinians say that they should decide their fate.

Dozens of Christian clerics and other civilians are also trapped inside the church.

Talks have taken place to reach a compromise, but on Monday an Israeli sniper killed a Palestinian in a garden of the church.

Despite the setback, negotiations have continued and reports on Tuesday said that some Palestinians could be released later in the day.

See also:

21 Apr 02 | Middle East
Palestinians flee Bethlehem church
25 Apr 02 | Middle East
Timeline: Bethlehem siege
04 Apr 02 | Middle East
Church with a turbulent history
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