Church standoff threatens Israel-Vatican relations
Tuesday, April 9, 2002
BETHLEHEM, West Bank -- 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 relations between Israel and the Vatican.
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 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.
The fire burned in a second-floor meeting hall above the courtyard of St. Catherine's church adjacent to the Church of the Nativity, 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 Bethlehem.