Amid Strife, Christian Leaders Meet Israeli Officials

Scene at Bethlehem Basilica Is Tense But Calm

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BETHLEHEM, West Bank, APRIL 9, 2002 ( A tense calm gripped the Basilica of the Nativity today, in the wake of a meeting between Christian church leaders and Israeli government representatives.

Confusion still lingered over who was responsible for the attack that had caused a fire at the basilica.

Palestinian and Franciscan sources, as well as the Vatican missionary agency Fides, blamed the Israeli army for the fire. But an Israeli military spokesman laid the blame on the Palestinian gunmen holed up in the historic church.

The more than 30 Franciscans caught inside, as well as a few nuns and about 10 Orthodox and Armenian religious, continued to ask for help by telephone.

In response to their need, a meeting was held Monday afternoon between leaders of the Israeli government and a delegation of the 13 Christian Churches present in the Holy Land.

The delegation, headed by Archbishop Pietro Sambi, apostolic nuncio in Israel, included Latin Patriarch Michel Sabbah of Jerusalem; Father Giovanni Battistelli, Franciscan Custodian of the Holy Land; Bishop Aristarchus of the Greek-Orthodox patriarchate; and the bishop of Aris, delegate of the Armenian Orthodox patriarch.

Representing the Sharon government were Michael Melchio, Foreign Affairs Vice Minister, and Dalia Rabin, Vice Minister of Defense.

After the meeting, Archbishop Sambi said there were «hopeful signs» but declined further comment.

In a telephone interview with Vatican Radio, Father Ibrahim Faltas, custodian of the basilica, said this morning that the situation was calm.

Israeli forces are still outside, he explained, «but they don´t do anything. They don´t shoot, there are no bombings.» Referring to the Palestinian gunmen locked inside, Father Faltas said, «They are calm.»

Commenting on the meeting of Christian leaders with the Israeli government, the priest added: «We want to end this saga. We are not just asking for material help. Of course we are without food, electricity and water, but we have been able to sleep for four hours, and we feel much better. We hope it will all come to an end.»

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