Settlement bulldozers damage old Jerusalem church

Date: Mon, 19 May 97


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JERUSALEM (May 16, 1997) - Bulldozers working on a new Jewish settlement in East Jerusalem have seriously damaged the remains of an ancient church, an official at Israel's Antiquities Authority said on Friday.

The incident was the latest controversy surrounding Israel's building of the settlement. Israel-Palestinian peacemaking ground to a halt when Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu ordered work to begin at the site on March 18.

"Despite all the warnings of the Antiquities Authority and specific instructions to the planners, they ignored what they were told and ran over the church and seriously damaged the antiquities," the authority's Zvi Greenhut told Reuters.

The fifth century Cathisma church is believed to have been built to commemorate the Virgin Mary's trip to Bethlehem on the eve of the birth of Jesus.

Greenhut said while parts of the site had been excavated most of it was still underground but had been fenced off. Archeologists say the mosaic floors damaged by the bulldozers were unique in richness and design.

"There is damage to the mosaics and the walls," Greenhut said. He said the authority had successfully prevented the paving of a road over the site five years ago.

Greenhut said the Israeli Housing Ministry was responsible for the work and the damage. Ministry officials were not immediately available to comment.

Palestinians say the construction strengthens Israel's hold on the eastern part of Jerusalem which Israel captured from Jordan in 1967 and pre-empts final peace talks at which Jerusalem is to be negotiated.

Palestinians want East Jerusalem as the capital of a future state. Israel says it will never give up any part of what it calls its eternal, united capital.

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