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Franciscan demand for key to Bethlehem Nativity Church

Church leaders have demanded Palestinian leaders step in immediately in their battle to obtain the keys to Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem.

In the week the Pope made a plea for an end to violence in the Holy Land after a new wave of suicide bombings, Franciscan friars who take care of the Holy Places have pleaded with the Palestinian Authority to ensure they have access to the Church which is generally held to stand on the site of Jesus's birthplace.

Under a 151-year-old-decree recognised by Israel and the Palestinian authority, management of Christian religious sites is shared by the Greek Orthodox, Armenian Orthodox and Catholics Churchs, all three of whom hold keys for the sites.

But Franciscan Fr David Jaeger explained that last year Greek Orthodox monks changed the locks on the doors to the Church of the Nativity, leaving access to the site up to the discretion of the Greek Orthodox leadership.

And he said that despite repeated meetings with the monks and the Greek Orthodox patriarch, the Franciscans and Armenian priests have not received their own keys, nor has the original lock been restored.

The Franciscans have now demanded in writing that the Palestinian government compel the Greek Orthodox to provide keys to the priests from the other churches or to restore the original lock.

"Unhappily, it is not resolved," said Fr Jaeger. "This will be a test of the will of the Palestinian authority. A treaty between the Vatican and Palestinians approved in 2000 "obligates the Palestinian authority to enforce the legal regime" in the holy places in the territory under its governance."

The move came as the site of the al-Aqsa mosque and the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem was reopened to non-Muslims three years after they were banned. The site is sacred to Muslims and Jews.

However, as more people died in a suicide blast in the Israeli capital, hopes of progress in the peace process dwindled and the Pope conceded that news of the attacks "can only generate deep sadness and total condemnation in our heart."

The Universe

Franciscan Custody of the Holy Land
Row Seethes in Bethlehem Over Keys to the Birthplace of Jesus (Christianity Today 14/8/03)
Book renews controversy on April siege in Bethlehem (29/10/02)
Violence flares at Church of Nativity standoff (3/5/02)
Survivor's tale of the siege of Bethlehem ( 20/4/02)
Church with a turbulent history (BBC)

5 Sep 2003