Pope Decries Levels of "Intolerable" Violence in Holy Land
Fallout of Sept. 11 Lingers, He Tells Members of Papal Foundation

VATICAN CITY, APRIL 8, 2002 ( John Paul II expressed again his concern over the "unimaginable and intolerable levels" of violence in the Holy Land.

The international panorama offers "compelling evidence of just how desperately mankind stands in need of God's grace and peace," he said today.

The Holy Father was addressing about 60 members of the Papal Foundation, a U.S. institution created in 1990 by the then archbishop of Philadelphia, Cardinal John Krol. The foundation collects funds annually to support the Pope's charitable endeavors.

"The dire consequences of the tragic events of Sept. 11 are still with us," the Pope said when he received the U.S. pilgrims. "The spiral of violence and armed hostility in the Holy Land -- the land of the Lord's birth, death and resurrection -- a land held sacred by the three monotheistic religions, has increased to unimaginable and intolerable levels."

"Throughout the world, innocent men, women and children continue to suffer the ravages of war, poverty, injustice and exploitation of all kinds," John Paul II continued.

"Indeed, we are currently experiencing a very difficult international situation, but the Lord's victory and his promise to remain with us until the end of the world are beacons of light beckoning us to meet the challenge before us with courage and trust," the Holy Father said.

The Pope thanked the Papal Foundation which, through the generosity of many, "enables needed works to be carried out in the name of Christ and his Church."


Vatican Insists on "Absolute Priority" of Holy Places
Israeli Attack Reported at Basilica of Nativity

VATICAN CITY, APRIL 8, 2002 ( Amid conflicting reports from Bethlehem, the Vatican reminded Israelis and Palestinians that respect for the Holy Places is an "absolute priority," in keeping with agreements signed by both sides.

Vatican spokesman Joaquín Navarro-Valls was commenting today on the violence that is turning Bethlehem's Basilica of the Nativity into a war zone.

The statement issued by the Vatican Press Office says that "the Holy See follows the situation in Bethlehem with extreme apprehension, and is trying to confirm the veracity of the latest events."

Conflicting news reports are coming from Bethlehem. According to Palestinian sources and Franciscans locked in the basilica, the building was the object of an Israeli military attack. Palestinian gunmen have been holed up there since early last week.

The operation is reported to have started at 3:10 a.m., Vatican Radio reported. It lasted just over an hour and ended with a fire in the parish hall, caused by the explosion of grenades.

According to Vatican Radio, a 26-year-old Palestinian, who tried to put out the fire, was killed by an Israeli bullet.

The Israeli army gave a totally different interpretation of the events. An official statement explained that during the night, "Palestinian terrorists" opened fire and threw grenades against army units. The fire, and the killing of the young Palestinian, must be blamed on the Palestinian militias locked in the basilica, the Israelis said. But another Israeli report acknowledged that the fire was set as a diversionary tactic.

In his statement, Navarro-Valls revealed that "Archbishop Jean-Louis Tauran, Vatican secretary for relations with states, and Archbishop Pietro Sambi, apostolic nuncio in Israel, have had contacts with the Israeli authorities to confirm that the Holy See regards respect for the status of the Holy Places as an absolute priority."

"All the more reason because at present there are some 200 men -- some armed -- inside the Basilica of the Nativity, something that is unprecedented in the centenarian history of the Christian Holy Places," Navarro-Valls continued.

Both "the fundamental agreement of 1993 between the Vatican and the state of Israel, as well as the 2000 basic agreement with the Palestinian Authority, include articles that sanction respect for the status quo of the Holy Places," the Vatican spokesman added.

"If the news coming from Bethlehem in the last hours is confirmed, it would be a development that would aggravate a situation that is already dramatic," the press statement said.

U.N. Delegation´s Trip to Holy Land Is Supported
Vatican Aide Says Peace Still Hinges on Negotiations

GENEVA, APRIL 8, 2002 ( The Vatican is supporting a decision by the U.N. Human Rights Commission to send a mission to Israel and the occupied territories in order to monitor the humanitarian situation.

The Vatican's permanent observer at the United Nations here, Archbishop Diarmuid Martin, also emphasized that a lasting peace in the Mideast will depend on a return to negotiations.

The U.N. commission held a special session Friday to discuss human-rights violations in the occupied territories.

"Following a very long debate, with the intervention of some 20 countries, among which was the Vatican, it was decided to send a special mission," Archbishop Martin told Vatican Radio today.

The delegation will be headed by Mary Robinson, High Commissioner for Human Rights. Its objective will be to verify the situation firsthand and present a detailed report to the panel. "They should leave any day now; all depends on the reception they receive on the spot," the archbishop said.

Representatives of Israel and the Palestinian Authority were among the key speakers in Friday's debate. Other national delegates spoke after them and highlighted the lack of access to food and sanitary services.

Many countries voiced concern about Yasser Arafat's lack of mobility and about the problem of terrorism.

"The Vatican said explicitly that it is legitimate for the U.N. to verify the situation of human rights," Archbishop Martin added. "It is very clear to me that the future of the peoples of the Middle East lies in finding the way to live together in mutual respect. Sooner or later, they will sit around a table. The question is: Why wait? Why must there still be dead?"

The United States and Europe are already allocating funds for humanitarian relief. "The problem is that while there is no security on site it will be difficult to address" the emergency, Archbishop Martin concluded.

Israeli Army Attack at Bethlehem Basilica Roils Franciscans
Fire Started on Purpose to Cover Up Incursion

VATICAN CITY, APRIL 8, 2002 ( The Franciscans at the monastery next to the Basilica of the Nativity in Bethlehem accused Israel of attacking the sacred place early today and causing a fire.

Father Gianfranco Pinto Ostuni, press director of the Minor Friars' General Curia, told Vatican Radio that the "fire was caused by the assault of the Israeli special troops. It began at 3:15 a.m. and ended around 4:30 a.m."

"Israeli soldiers were lowered from the roofs with ropes," he added. "They destroyed stained glass windows and seriously damaged an old mosaic that is in the basilica, in the area administered by the Armenians."

"Suffice it to know that during the different invasions of Bethlehem this mosaic saved the basilica. Invaders respected that church because of the mosaic's remarkable artistic value," he said. "This time there has been no mercy."

Father David Jaeger, spokesman for the Custodians of the Holy Places, told the Vatican missionary agency Fides: "This is a horrible act of barbarity, which will have unimaginable consequences."

Franciscan priests said that personal belongings of the Israeli troops were found inside the monastery, Fides reported. Father Jaeger believes that this means that some Israelis had penetrated the compound and are hiding, awaiting a blitz.

Israeli military said the fire was caused on purpose to cover up a Special Unit incursion.

Father Jaeger, an Israeli himself, exclaimed: "This strike, this violation of a sacred place, is hallucinating. This is not worthy of my country!"

Christian Leaders Blocked in March to Bethlehem
Leave Message of Peace and Condemnation of Violence

JERUSALEM, APRIL 8, 2002 ( Israeli authorities blocked the patriarchs and heads of Christian churches in Jerusalem from entering Bethlehem today because the area is still declared a closed military zone, a Catholic official told ZENIT.

Father Raed Abusahlia, chancellor of the Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem, said the marchers had aimed show their solidarity with the population of the beleaguered West Bank town. They had to give up their plan when Israeli troops would not let them through the Tantour checkpoint.

Instead, they held a moment of prayer for peace, during which they read the Gospel of the Nativity in Arabic, English and Italian. "Peace upon all those who desire peace," the patriarchs said in a statement read at the checkpoint.

"Peace cannot be obtained by war, tanks or bloodshed, especially in Bethlehem," the leaders of the Christian churches added.

"There is no need for more bloodshed in Bethlehem. This morning, blood was shed. We refuse all bloodshed, Israeli or Palestinian. Bethlehem must no longer be a place of war," they said.

The Christian leaders asked the Israeli authorities "to withdraw all their instruments of war; to go in peace, and to send their soldiers back to their families."

"On this barrier of war we proclaim the Gospel of peace, the Gospel of the Nativity of Our Lord Jesus Christ, Prince of Peace. We invite all the churches of the world to proclaim it with us," the leaders said.

They invited the authorities "to ring the bells of Christmas today at 2 p.m. in Bethlehem, Beit-Jala and Beit-Sahour, the town of the shepherds and the angels who proclaimed peace to the world, and in all the parishes in the Holy Land, as a sign of the peace in their hearts and as a moment of prayer and supplication until the end of this war."

In the afternoon, the religious leaders were to meet with Israeli Deputy Foreign Minister Rabbi Michael Melchior and Deputy Defense Minister Dalia Rabin, in order to discuss a way out of the crisis in general, and the Nativity Church situation in particular.

Among those expected to attend the meeting were Archbishop Pietro Sambi, the apostolic delegate in Jerusalem; Latin Patriarch Michel Sabbah of Jerusalem; Bishop Arsitarchos, representative of the Greek Orthodox patriarchate; Bishop Aris, representative of the Armenian Orthodox patriarchate; and Father Giovanni Battistelli, Custodian of the Holy Land.