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Bethlehem Church of Nativity in flames

Parts of Bethlehem's besieged Church of the Nativity are in flames as the week-long siege continues, with several hundred Palestinian gunmen and civilians fleeing Israeli tanks are holed up in the church complex alongside monks and nuns.

While Israel says its troops are under orders not to fire at holy places, a number of sacred places have now been badly damaged.

A spokesman for Catholic monks in the Holy Land said this morning that Israeli soldiers were guilty of an "indescribable act of barbarity."

Fr David Jaeger said Israel had broken its international obligations and risked "long-term and incalculable" consequences.

The Israeli army says Palestinian gunmen caused the fire. They said gunmen had begun shooting from a belltower, wounding two Israeli border policemen in a nearby rooftop look-out, an army officer told Reuters news agency.

He said the Israelis returned fire and a smoke grenade started the blaze in a second-floor meeting hall overlooking the Basilica of St Catherine, adjacent to the Church of the Nativity.

One Palestinian gunman was shot dead in the battle, the Israeli source said.

But a priest inside the church, Fr Amjad Sabbara, told the BBC that the Palestinian killed was a police officer who had been trying to douse the flames.

He said the blaze had burned for an hour, destroying a piano, chairs, altar cloths and ceremonial cups.

Fr Sabbara estimated that there were 240 people in the church. Some were armed, he said, but they were "not using their arms".

The Mayor of Bethlehem, Hanna Nasser, told the BBC that mosaics inside the Basilica of St Catherine had been "affected by the bullets".

Palestinians see no choice but to stay in Church (Miami Herald)

Independent Catholic News

9 Apr 2002