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Vatican seeks to end Israeli-Palestinian standoff

Vatican diplomats have reportedly put forward a proposal to Israelis and Palestinians to end a standoff at the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem on the site traditionally regarded as the birthplace of Jesus.

One official, who spoke to Reuters on condition of anonymity, said the proposal had been made after the standoff began five days ago and has been renewed regularly.

Fr David Jaeger, spokesman for the Franciscan custodians of Roman Catholic sites in the Holy Land, said in an interview in Rome that the plan was formulated by Vatican diplomats and was being ''reproposed constantly,'' because the situation had become ''graver by the hour.''

According to a Catholic Church source, the proposal calls for the Palestinians to leave their weapons inside the church complex and for the Israeli army to pull back from the immediate vicinity of the Church of the Nativity for a few hours to let them out.

But Jaeger, when asked about the details set out by the source, said, ''I state categorically this does not correspond to the plan.''

Another well-informed Catholic Church official said that the plan was intended to ''provide for the armed men who are in the holy place improperly to end this improper presence, while guaranteeing their safety and dignity and without any danger thereby to the Israelis.''

On Friday, Jaeger said the Franciscans feared that the Israeli army was trying to legitimise an imminent attack on the Church of the Nativity by declaring that the friars inside were hostages.

''It is impossible not to fear that the use of this term is meant in an effort to legitimise a perhaps imminent military assault,'' he said in the statement carried by Fides, the news agency of the Vatican's missionary arm. ''The friars are not hostages they are in their own house, in the precise place where they belong.''


8 Apr 2002