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Pope makes urgent plea to save Holy Places

The Pope launched an urgent diplomatic initiative yesterday to try to "save the Holy Places of the Middle East" as spiralling violence engulfed the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem.

There were confused reports throughout yesterday that the Israeli armoured advance into Bethlehem had claimed the life of a Salesian priest. Monsignor Pietro Sambi, the Papal Nuncio in Israel, later apologised for "disseminating erroneous information" about the killing.

Catholic news agencies confirmed, however, that six nuns from the Salesian order's church and hostel of St Mary had been wounded in crossfire and that the hostel — renovated only two years ago for Millennium Holy Year pilgrims — had been hit and was in flames. A mosque had also been set on fire by Israeli shells.

Earlier reports had named the dead priest as either Father Jacques Assad, described as holding French nationality but of Arabic origin, or Father Giacomo Amateis, an Italian. Father Amateis later telephoned his order's Superior in Jerusalem, however, to say that he was "under siege" but alive. Israeli officials and Church authorities in Jerusalem later said that no priests had been killed during the day's fighting.

Apache helicopters had hovered over Manger Square in Bethlehem, firing into areas near the traditional birthplace of Jesus, where Palestinian gunmen were hiding.

Israel claimed that 20 armed men who sought sanctuary in the Church of the Nativity opened fire from the shrine, but that was denied by the Palestinians. The militia fighters were hiding from tanks which advanced into the West Bank town before dawn yesterday, as part of a big military operation which also saw heavy armour roll into Qalqilya, Tulkarm, Ramallah, Jenin and villages and refugee camps around Bethlehem.

Joaquín Navarro-Valls, the chief Vatican spokesman, said that the Pope had told the Vatican's diplomatic service to make urgent contact with the Governments of Israel and the US as well as the Palestinian leadership and the Arab League, to prevent further violence and damage in the birthplace of Jesus.

"The Holy Father is continually following the evolution of the dramatic situation in the Middle East" Dr Navarro-Valls said. The fighting around the Church of the Nativity signalled "a new and dramatic stage in the violence of which the Holy See must take account".

The Times (London)

4 Apr 2002