Lifting of Bethlehem Siege Postponed

VATICAN CITY, MAY 7, 2002 ( The Vatican denies having asked Italy to receive some of the Palestinians holed up in Bethlehem’s Basilica of the Nativity.

“I can affirm that there have been no official contacts in this respect,” Vatican spokesman Joaquín Navarro-Valls said in a press statement today.

The statement denies press reports that the Vatican, particularly Cardinal Roger Etchegaray, John Paul II’s special envoy to the Holy Land, exerted pressure on the Italian government to receive 13 Palestinians accused of terrorism by the Israelis.

An agreement reached by CIA officials and Shin Bet, the Israeli domestic security agency, with the acquiescence of Palestinian President Yasser Arafat, established that 13 Palestinian activists would be taken to Italy, and an additional 23 to the Gaza Strip.

Italian authorities did not hide their unhappiness today at not having been consulted during the negotiations, so the lifting of the basilica siege had to be postponed, according to Israeli army sources.

“For the time being, Italy has received no official request through diplomatic channels,” said Alfredo Mantica, Italian undersecretary for foreign affairs.

Italian Defense Minister Antonio Martino was more explicit, stating unequivocally that he was against “unilateral initiatives taken without informing the Italian government.” Italy is awaiting an official request to receive the Palestinians.

Sources told ZENIT that the 13 Palestinians might be taken to Egypt, in the interim.

This issue was the last remaining problem before the possible lifting of the monthlong siege at the basilica, which was invaded by Palestinians on April 2. More than two dozen religious and monks have been confined there during the siege by the Israeli army.

Franciscan sources explained that after the withdrawal, the religious would remain in the monastery “because it is their home.”

Father Giovanni Battistelli, Custodian of the Holy Land, and the Armenian and Greek patriarchs were ready to go to Bethlehem as soon as the Israeli army called them.

The Franciscan order has requested that all weapons be removed immediately from the basilica, as “we don’t even want to see them.”