BBC NEWS Americas Africa Europe Middle East South Asia Asia Pacific Arabic Spanish Russian Chinese Welsh

 You are in:  World: Middle East
Front Page 
Middle East 
South Asia 
From Our Own Correspondent 
Letter From America 
UK Politics 
Talking Point 
In Depth 

Commonwealth Games 2002

BBC Sport

BBC Weather

Tuesday, 7 May, 2002, 17:28 GMT 18:28 UK
Italy 'in dark' over Bethlehem deal
Soldier and priest speak across the barricades at the church
News of its role in the deal has surprised Italy
test hello test
By David Willey
BBC Rome correspondent
An agreement to end the month-long siege of the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem brokered in Jerusalem appears to be on the point of foundering after Italy's abrupt refusal to grant asylum to 13 of the Palestinian militants holed up inside.

Tank outside the Church of the Nativity
The Vatican is keen to end the desecration of one of Christianity's holiest sites
News of a purported deal involving Israeli, Palestinian, American, and British diplomats, supported by a special envoy of the Pope, apparently took the Italian Government by surprise.

A terse statement put out by the Italian Foreign Ministry said that press reports of an alleged agreement by Italy to welcome a number of Palestinians accused of acts of terrorism were untrue.

Italy had never received from any of the parties involved information about the progress of negotiations, nor had any requests been made in recent days by any of the parties.

The question of granting asylum to Palestinian citizens had never been considered and at the present moment is out of the question, the statement said.

Crossed lines

Earlier, a deputy Italian Foreign Minister, Alfredo Mantica, had said Italy would be consulting her EU partners, the United States and Israel before deciding whether to grant the request of asylum for the Palestinians.

Cardinal Etchegaray with Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres
The Pope's special envoy was sent to assist moves towards a settlement
He said Italy would need to establish the exact legal status of these 13 alleged gunmen.

The Palestinians took refuge in one of the holiest shrines of Christendom to escape from Israeli forces last month occupying the town where Jesus Christ was born.

It was not clear whether the Palestinians would enter Italy as prisoners, tourists, or deportees, nor was it clear what restrictive measures would be applied to them, nor had the length of their permitted stay in Italy been established in advance.

The lines between Jerusalem and Rome clearly got crossed after Italy had previously said it would do anything to help restart the peace process between Israelis and Palestinians.

Italian Defence Minister Antonio Martino stressed that Italy would not accept "unilateral initiatives" but promised that Italy would examine all proposals very carefully - provided these proposals were made through the correct diplomatic channels.

Vatican role

Italians remember with some dismay the diplomatic mess which arose after the unexpected arrival here in 1998 of the Kurdish rebel leader Abdullah Ocalan who sought asylum after being expelled from Russia.

Relations between Italy and Turkey were strained after Italy refused to hand him over to the Turks because of legislation here which prevents the expulsion of suspects to countries where they might face the death penalty.

The behind the scenes role of the Vatican in trying to lift the Israeli siege of the Church of the Nativity may have added to the confusion over the selection of Italy as a place of possible asylum for the Palestinians.

A Vatican spokesman has denied any official contact between the Holy See and Italy over the efforts to deport the Palestinians from Bethlehem to Italy.

Last week the Pope sent his chief diplomatic trouble-shooter Cardinal Roger Etchegaray to Jerusalem to join the mediation effort.

The Vatican has no facilities to offer asylum inside the Vatican City State to the Palestinians and may have assumed too readily that Italy would be willing to take charge of them, given the urgency of ending what it considers the continued desecration by Jews and Muslims of one of the most important Christian Holy Places, the birthplace of Jesus Christ.

The BBC's David Willey reports from Rome
"Clearly, the Italians feel they have been slighted"
Italian Minister for Europe Rocco Buttiglione
"Those who come to Italy must not exercise any political activity"
See also:

07 May 02 | Middle East
Snags delay end to church siege
07 May 02 | Americas
Sharon steps up diplomacy
05 May 02 | Middle East
US criticises Arafat's leadership
25 Apr 02 | Middle East
Timeline: Bethlehem siege
04 Apr 02 | Middle East
Church with a turbulent history
03 May 02 | Middle East
Q&A: Middle East peace conference
Internet links:

The BBC is not responsible for the content of external internet sites

Links to more Middle East stories are at the foot of the page.

E-mail this story to a friend

Links to more Middle East stories