Talks between the Palestinians and the Israeli army, aimed at ending the three-week siege at the Church of the Nativity, took place for the first time yesterday. Describing the initial meeting as 'constructive', the Mayor of Bethlehem, Hanna Nasser, said he was hopeful the standoff would be resolved. A BBC reporter in Bethlehem, said the situation was very tense with periodic exchanges of gunfire. On Monday night there was a small fire within the compound. The Israeli government said it has offered the gunman the option of trial in Israel or permanent exile abroad, while the Palestinians wants them to be released in Gaza. The missionary news service reported yesterday that a Palestinian source had said the 35 Franciscan friars and four nuns holed up in the church were considering leaving, because conditions had become so bad. But Fr Giovanni Battistelli, custodian of the Holy Land, denied that they were willing to completely abandon the church. He told MISNA: "We are evaluating the situation, particularly regarding our seminarians and four sisters. The decision will be taken by the general curia of Rome, but in any case a part of the community will remain. Prior to tomorrow no decision will be taken and therefore no one will leave."
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