Vatican Insists on "Absolute Priority" of Holy Places

Israeli Attack Reported at Basilica of Nativity

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VATICAN CITY, APRIL 8, 2002 ( Amid conflicting reports from Bethlehem, the Vatican reminded Israelis and Palestinians that respect for the Holy Places is an «absolute priority,» in keeping with agreements signed by both sides.

Vatican spokesman Joaquín Navarro-Valls was commenting today on the violence that is turning Bethlehem´s Basilica of the Nativity into a war zone.

The statement issued by the Vatican Press Office says that «the Holy See follows the situation in Bethlehem with extreme apprehension, and is trying to confirm the veracity of the latest events.»

Conflicting news reports are coming from Bethlehem. According to Palestinian sources and Franciscans locked in the basilica, the building was the object of an Israeli military attack. Palestinian gunmen have been holed up there since early last week.

The operation is reported to have started at 3:10 a.m., Vatican Radio reported. It lasted just over an hour and ended with a fire in the parish hall, caused by the explosion of grenades.

According to Vatican Radio, a 26-year-old Palestinian, who tried to put out the fire, was killed by an Israeli bullet.

The Israeli army gave a totally different interpretation of the events. An official statement explained that during the night, «Palestinian terrorists» opened fire and threw grenades against army units. The fire, and the killing of the young Palestinian, must be blamed on the Palestinian militias locked in the basilica, the Israelis said. But another Israeli report acknowledged that the fire was set as a diversionary tactic.

In his statement, Navarro-Valls revealed that «Archbishop Jean-Louis Tauran, Vatican secretary for relations with states, and Archbishop Pietro Sambi, apostolic nuncio in Israel, have had contacts with the Israeli authorities to confirm that the Holy See regards respect for the status of the Holy Places as an absolute priority.»

«All the more reason because at present there are some 200 men — some armed — inside the Basilica of the Nativity, something that is unprecedented in the centenarian history of the Christian Holy Places,» Navarro-Valls continued.

Both «the fundamental agreement of 1993 between the Vatican and the state of Israel, as well as the 2000 basic agreement with the Palestinian Authority, include articles that sanction respect for the status quo of the Holy Places,» the Vatican spokesman added.

«If the news coming from Bethlehem in the last hours is confirmed, it would be a development that would aggravate a situation that is already dramatic,» the press statement said.

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