VATICAN, May 8, 02 ( -- Cardinal Roger
Etchegaray, having returned from his mission as a
special envoy for Pope John Paul II in the Holy
Land, has issued a pessimistic statement about the
prospects for peace there.

As Cardinal Etchegaray returned to Rome, an
agreement that would have ended the 36-day siege at
Bethlehem's Church of the Nativity broke down,
apparently because diplomats had not secured Italy's
agreement to accept 13 Palestinians who were to be
sent into exile there.

The cardinal described the situation at the
Bethlehem basilica as "tragic and intolerable." He
reported that, despite his repeated pleas, he was
refused permission to enter the ancient church by
Israeli authorities. That refusal, he suggested, was
a direct violation of Israel's treaty commitment to
ensure free access to Christian shrines.

"I had asked to go to this place and to pray in
particular with the Franciscans who, in solidarity
with the Greek-Orthodox and Armenian churches, bear
the spiritual responsibility of this sacred place,"
Cardinal Etchegaray revealed. "Despite great
insistence, I was refused what is, properly
speaking, a religious step."

The French-born prelate said that his latest trip to
the Holy Land left him with a vivid impression of
the hostility between the Israeli and Palestinian
sides. "One must actually be there," he said, "to
measure the mistrust, disdain, and vengeance that
have accumulated on the steep path to peace."

Cardinal Etchegaray insisted that Catholic leaders
would not rest until the situation in Bethlehem is
resolved. In Jerusalem, Latin-rite Patriarch Michel
Sabbah told the Italian daily Avvenire that the
situation is "very confused."

The Catholic Patriarch confessed that he himself
could not understand how negotiators failed to
include Italian government representatives in their
plans. "How could you talk about an agreement" on
the exile of suspected Palestinian terrorists, he
asked, "when no decision has been made regarding the
destination for some of those Palestinians?"