VATICAN, Apr 8, 02 ( -- The Vatican has
expressed "extreme apprehension" about the situation at
the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, and reminded
the Israeli government of its obligation to protect the
shrines of the Holy Land.

In a statement issued from Rome on Monday afternoon,
Vatican spokesman Joaquin Navarro-Valls said that the
Holy See is "seeking to verify" the latest reports from

He indicated that Archbishop Jean-Louis Tauran, the
Vatican's Secretary for Relations with States, and
Archbishop Pietro Sambi, the papal nuncio in Jerusalem,
have contacted Israeli officials, urgently seeking
reassurance that the site of Christ's birth will not
become a battleground.

The Vatican statement emphasized that "the Holy See
considers respect for the 'status quo' of the holy
places to be an absolute priority."

Navarro-Valls also pointed out that the Israeli
government, under the terms of its 1993 accord with the
Holy See, has a legal obligation to protect the holy

The Vatican statement came after reports that Israeli
soldiers had fired into the basilica, and rumors that
the Israeli army might plan an assault. Navarro-Valls
said: "If the information coming from Bethlehem in
these last hours should be confirmed, it would be a
question of a development that would aggravate an
already dramatic situation."

Earlier in the day, Navarro-Valls had denied reports
that the Vatican was preparing a diplomatic initiative
to ease the confrontation in Bethlehem.

"There is no plan by the Holy See to resolve the
situation taking place in the Basilica of the Nativity
in Bethlehem," the Vatican spokesman had said.
"Naturally, the diplomatic representation of the Holy
See in Israel continues its appreciated efforts to aid
all those who are suffering."


VATICAN, Apr 8, 02 ( -- At his public
audience on Sunday, April 7-- a day he had dedicated to
prayers for peace in the Middle East-- Pope John Paul
II condemned the "pitiless logic of arms" that
dominates the situation in the Holy Land.

In the current impasse, the Holy Father said, "Only God
can provide the impulse necessary for man to be freed
from hatred and the thirst for vengeance, and to take
up the path of negotiation."

The Pope reminded his audience of the Biblical
admonition:  'Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man
shall his blood be shed." He voiced his sorrow that
Israeli and Palestinian forces seemed committed to
violence rather than negotiation, and urged them to
remember, that they both, "following the example of
Abraham, believe in one God."

The Pope offered his special prayers for the
Franciscan, Orthodox, and Armenian monks and nuns who
have been living for almost a week inside the Church of
the Nativity, under an Israeli siege that began when
Palestinian gunmen sought protection there.

Pope John Paul had written to all of the world's
bishops, asking them to make Sunday a special day of
prayer for peace in the Holy Land. He devoted most of
his own Sunday audience to that topic.

The Pope did tell the tens of thousands of pilgrims in
St. Peter's Square that the day was also Divine Mercy
Sunday, and encouraged them to persevere in that