BETHLEHEM, West Bank – Christian leaders called on Israel to leave this biblical city after a gunbattle and fire erupted Monday around the Church of the Nativity, site of a weeklong standoff between Israeli soldiers and armed Palestinians that appeared to be straining delicate relations between Israel and the Vatican.
The Vatican said it was following the situation with "extreme apprehension," and trying to verify what happened. But it also reminded Israel of a 1993 pledge not to interfere at holy places and warned that it was hearing information that, if true, "would lead to the aggravation of an already dramatic situation."
Some church officials, including a Franciscan friar who briefed senior Vatican officials on the situation, were less diplomatic, angrily accusing Israel of provoking the unprecedented violence around one of Christianity's holiest shrines.
A senior Israeli army officer said two Israeli border policemen, wounded when they came under fire from Palestinian gunmen inside the compound, had thrown a smoke bomb that sparked the blaze. But the Rev. David Jaeger of the office of the Custodian of Catholic sites in the Holy Land called the pre-dawn clash and fire an Israeli attack that violates "every canon of human decency. It shreds the credibility of the people who launched it."
The fire burned in a second-floor meeting hall above the courtyard of St. Catherine's church adjacent to the Church of the Nativity, which is built over the grotto where tradition says Jesus was born. The blaze destroyed a piano, chairs, altar cloths and ceremonial cups belonging to St. Catherine's, the site of midnight Mass every Christmas in Bethlehem.
Palestinians in the compound said an Israeli soldier shot and killed a Palestinian policeman, 23-year-old Khaled Syam, as he went to put out the fire.
The senior Israeli officer, speaking on condition of anonymity, said Palestinians signaled gunmen in a bell tower to fire on two Israeli border police manning a nearby rooftop lookout. Gunmen inside the compound fired rifles and threw hand grenades, and soldiers returning fire killed a Palestinian, he said.
A Catholic missionary news agency in Rome quoted the Rev. Giovanni Battistelli, the Franciscan's top representative in the Holy Land, as disputing the Israeli version: "Nobody opened fire from inside the basilica compound. It was an attack carried out by Israeli forces."
Israeli forces moved into Bethlehem shortly after beginning their 11-day-old offensive in the West Bank, an operation targeting militant groups that have carried out terror attacks in Israel. More than 200 armed Palestinians, including police and militiamen, have been holed up in the church for a week.
Last Thursday, four dozen Israeli soldiers stormed buildings of the Evangelical Lutheran Christmas Church in Bethlehem, locking the Rev. Mitri Raheb in his office for two hours and threatening him at gunpoint as they searched offices, a guest house and a conference center, the clergyman said. Raheb said at the time 35 doors were broken, 55 windows shattered and a 19th-century stained glass was cracked. The army had no comment.
Relations between the Vatican and Israel, formalized only in 1993, long have been sensitive, largely because of differences over Pope Pius XII's role during the Holocaust and the Israeli-Palestinian crisis. Critics of Pius maintain he failed to speak out and use his position to protect European Jews from the Nazis. The Vatican, which plans to beatify Pius and put him on the path to sainthood, maintains he used discreet diplomacy to try to help Jews.
Leaders of other Christian denominations in the Holy Land have supported the Franciscans' position about the Church of the Nativity, issuing a statement urging Israeli forces to "go in peace" from Bethlehem.
But Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, who also is under growing U.S. pressure to pull out of West Bank Palestinian cities immediately, told parliament Monday that soldiers would surround the church until the gunmen surrender.
"Since it is not our aim to desecrate the sanctity of the place, as the murderers who took control of the spot and took the clerics hostage are doing, we expect the international community to demand that they lay down their arms and leave the holy place," Sharon told parliament. "Until then, the [Israeli army] will remain in position."
Franciscans, who deny the 60 clergymen in the church compound are hostages, said the clerics will remain in place throughout the standoff.
Israel's Foreign Ministry tried to ease the growing anxiety of not only Roman Catholic leaders in Jerusalem but also those of other Christian denominations, meeting privately with them Monday evening.
Foreign Ministry spokesman Yaffa Ben-Ari said Israel initiated the meeting to "find ways to alleviate the pressures of the situation."
She said church leaders asked Israel not to take any actions that would further harm the church and that Deputy Foreign Minister Michael Melchior "expressed the promise to make sure we will keep the sanctity of life and church."
Rabbi David Rosen, director of inter-religious affairs at the American Jewish Committee, said the situation is serious and he expects the Vatican is frustrated but that the threat of the church standoff undermining relations appears worse than it is.
Rosen, who helped negotiate the 1993 agreement establishing formal ties, said the Vatican understands that the assessment of events at the church compound from some of its Christian leaders in the Holy Land is colored by their views as Palestinians.
About 2 percent of the 3 million Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza are Christian.