Gunfire Hits Franciscan Monastery in Bethlehem

JERUSALEM, Apr 7, 02 (FIDES/ - Israeli troops opened fire on the Franciscan monastery adjacent to Bethlehem's Church of the Nativity early on Monday morning, killing one monastery worker and causing a fire in the monastery courtyard.

Stun grenades caused the fire, and Khaled Syam, 23, was killed by rifle fire. The incident occurred at 3 am on April 7.

Father David Jaeger, the spokesman for the Franciscan Custody of the Holy Land, described the incident as "a horrible act of barbarity, which will have unimaginable consequences." He pointed out that the Israeli government has given repeated assurances that there would be no military action against the Christian shrine.

Father Jaeger told the Fides news service that he had immediately informed Israeli's deputy foreign minister, Rabino Melchior, about the attack on the monastery, and the Israeli official had denied any knowledge of the attack. The Franciscan spokesman observed: "Either government assurances are given with perfidy, or the Israeli army no longer obeys its civil and political authorities."

Inside the Church of the Nativity, Franciscan sources reported that they had found some Israeli army paraphernalia. They feared that this was an indication that some Israeli troops had penetrated into the building, where about 200 armed Palestinians have taken refuge, and about 60 monks and nuns have been trapped for almost a week. If Israeli soldiers are inside the building, the Franciscan custodians worry, an armed assault could be imminent.

Father Jaeger reported that the Franciscans were under heavy pressure from Israeli officials to leave the Church of the Nativity. The friars have resisted that pressure, pointing out that the shrine is their home-- served by the Franciscan order for centuries.

The Franciscans gave their full support, however, to the notion that the Palestinian gunmen might be evacuated from the Church of the Nativity, and taken in a convoy to another spot on the West Bank. Such a plan was mentioned in the Sunday, April 7 edition of the Israeli newspaper Ma'ariv. The report cited anonymous Palestinian sources as the basis for the rumor, and pointed out that the Israeli army would have to accept the proposal.

Father Jaeger said that the plan "would be very reasonable, an honorable and peaceful solution. It has various positive points: The Holy Place would be evacuated by persons who do not belong there; the lives, safety and dignity of all the people involved, armed or unarmed, would be saved; and the true interests of all parties concerned protected."

Meanwhile, the confrontation at the site where Jesus was born has taken a toll on the Franciscan community and the neighboring Catholic population. Father Jaeger pointed out that Catholics in Bethlehem were unable to attend Sunday Mass at the church, since it is now blocked off my the surrounding Israeli soldiers.

Inside the shrine, the Franciscan spokesman continued, conditions are "deteriorating, the tension is unbearable; the food emergency is now critical."

Catholic World News Feature
8. april 2002