Bethlehem: Church of Nativity in flames

 Parts of Bethlehem's besieged Church of the Nativity are in flames today as the week-long siege continues. Several hundred Palestinian gunmen and civilians fleeing Israeli tanks are holed up in the church complex, along with a group of monks and nuns. While Israel says its troops are under orders not to fire at holy places, a number of sacred places have now been badly damaged. Fr David Jaeger, speaking on behalf of the Franciscans in the Holy Land said this morning that Israeli soldiers were guilty of an "indescribable act of barbarity." Fr David said Israel had broken its international obligations and risked "long-term and incalculable" consequences. The Israeli army says Palestinian gunmen caused the fire. They said gunmen had begun shooting from a belltower, wounding two Israeli border policemen in a nearby rooftop look-out, an army officer told Reuters news agency. He said the Israelis returned fire and a smoke grenade started the blaze in a second-floor meeting hall overlooking the Basilica of St Catherine, adjacent to the Church of the Nativity. One Palestinian gunman was shot dead in the battle, the Israeli source said. But a priest inside the church, Fr Amjad Sabbara, said that the Palestinian killed was a police officer who had been trying to douse the flames. He said the blaze had burned for an hour, destroying a piano, chairs, altar cloths and ceremonial cups. Fr Sabbara estimated that there were 240 people in the church. Some were armed, he said, but they were "not using their arms". The Mayor of Bethlehem, Hanna Nasser, told the BBC that mosaics inside the Basilica of St Catherine had been "affected by the bullets". The Israeli army has been conducting a major military operation across the West Bank for over a week, in response to a wave of suicide bombings by Palestinian militants. Israeli troops have been using loudspeakers to demand the surrender of the Palestinians inside the Nativity complex. Prime Minister Ariel Sharon said today that his soldiers would not "defile the holiness of the site as the Palestinians have" but added that the troops would remain in place until the gunmen inside were captured. In Britain, Foreign Office Minister Ben Bradshaw described Israeli actions in the area as "totally unacceptable". The Vatican is reported to be working out an agreement with the Israelis on safe passage for the Palestinians inside the church to the Gaza Strip. Spokesman Joaquin Navarro-Valls said the Vatican was following events "with extreme apprehension" . The Pope, who has repeatedly urged people to pray for peace in the Middle East, described the violence in the Holy Land as having reached "unimaginable and intolerable" levels.

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