Vatican Applauds End to Bethlehem Siege

The Vatican on Friday hailed the "happy" end to the five-week-long siege of Bethlehem's Church of the Nativity and said an international peace conference should yield a just and lasting peace for the Middle East. 

The Vatican statement came at the conclusion of a visit here by Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres. 

The Vatican had said Peres' visit didn't allow time for a meeting with Pope John Paul II. Peres met instead with the pontiff's No. 2, Cardinal Angelo Sodano, and the pope's foreign minister, Monsignor Jean-Louis Tauran. 

"The meeting took place fortunately in the context of the happy conclusion to the siege of the Basilica of the Nativity of Bethlehem, which must not in any case make people forget the grave problems that still hamper the achievement of peace," said Vatican spokesman Joaquin Navarro-Valls. 

"The cordial talks provided the occasion for an exchange of views on the current, sorrowful situation in the Holy Land and in particular the city of Bethlehem," the spokesman said. 

"From the Holy See's end, they recalled the line promoted by the Holy Father and his collaborators for a peaceful solution to the problems thanks to a persevering and faithful dialogue among the parties, with the help of the international community." 

Navarro-Valls said Peres and the Vatican officials also discussed plans for an international peace conference "which ought to end with concrete commitments for a just and lasting peace." 

Before arriving at the Vatican, Peres told reporters that under a deal brokered with the European Union it will be up to individual countries to decide how to deal with 13 Palestinians who were deported from the basilica. 

EU officials said the Palestinians would be sent to Italy, Spain, Austria, Greece, Ireland, Luxembourg and possibly Canada. 

"We presume that the countries that will give shelter to those people will do the necessary things so they will not create some troubles or cause some harm," Peres said. 

He was to meet later Friday with Italian Premier Silvio Berlusconi, who promoted the idea of European involvement in ending the Bethlehem standoff. 

Italian officials have insisted the men's legal status needed to be resolved. 

"To decide their legal status we need to verify the accusations of terrorism that Israel has formulated against them," said Foreign Undersecretary Alfredo Mantica on Friday. 

Israel's siege began April 2 when more than 200 Palestinians fled into the church, built over the traditional birthplace of Jesus. 

A few days ago, a French cardinal was dispatched by the pope to the region to try to come up with a solution. 

The envoy, Cardinal Roger Etchegaray, told the Vatican's missionary news agency Fides on Friday: "We rejoice greatly over the happy ending to the dramatic affair of the Bethlehem Basilica of the Nativity. We must thank all those who participated in this obstacle course, winning it."