Vatican Diplomats Seek Reassurance on Bethlehem

VATICAN, Apr 8, 02 ( - The Vatican has expressed "extreme apprehension" about the situation at the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, and reminded the Israeli government of its obligation to protect the shrines of the Holy Land.

In a statement issued from Rome on Monday afternoon, Vatican spokesman Joaquin Navarro-Valls said that the Holy See is "seeking to verify" the latest reports from Bethlehem.

He indicated that Archbishop Jean-Louis Tauran, the Vatican's Secretary for Relations with States, and Archbishop Pietro Sambi, the papal nuncio in Jerusalem, have contacted Israeli officials, urgently seeking reassurance that the site of Christ's birth will not become a battleground.

The Vatican statement emphasized that "the Holy See considers respect for the 'status quo' of the holy places to be an absolute priority."

Navarro-Valls also pointed out that the Israeli government, under the terms of its 1993 accord with the Holy See, has a legal obligation to protect the holy places.

The Vatican statement came after reports that Israeli soldiers had fired into the basilica, and rumors that the Israeli army might plan an assault. Navarro-Valls said: "If the information coming from Bethlehem in these last hours should be confirmed, it would be a question of a development that would aggravate an already dramatic situation."

Earlier in the day, Navarro-Valls had denied reports that the Vatican was preparing a diplomatic initiative to ease the confrontation in Bethlehem.

"There is no plan by the Holy See to resolve the situation taking place in the Basilica of the Nativity in Bethlehem," the Vatican spokesman had said. "Naturally, the diplomatic representation of the Holy See in Israel continues its appreciated efforts to aid all those who are suffering."

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8. april 2002