FRANCISCANS, POPE PROD ARAFAT ON BETHLEHEM STALEMATE

JERUSALEM, Apr 22, 02 (FIDES/CWNews.com) -- The Franciscan Custody of the Holy Land has appealed to Palestinian leader Yassir Arafat to open talks with Israeli authorities to end a stalemate at the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem.

For more than two weeks, a group of about 200 Palestinian gunmen have been barricaded inside the basilica, which is built on the site where Jesus was born. About 50 Franciscan friars and nuns and Orthodox monks, are also being penned inside the building, which is blockaded by Israeli troops. The situation inside the church compound is becoming unlivable, as food and supplies run out and the surrounding troops prevent the delivery of new supplies.

Last Thursday, talks designed to relieve the stalemate broke down suddenly, just before they were scheduled to begin. Subsequent reports indicated that Arafat may have called for the postponement of those negotiations-- to the keen disappointment of Catholic officials.

On Sunday, April 21, the Franciscan Generalate in Rome called Nemer Hammad, the diplomatic representative of the Palestinian Authority in Italy, and asked him to convey a message to Arafat about the "intolerable situation" in the Bethlehem basilica, and the urgent need for a peaceful solution.

Two Italian bishops also sent an open letter to the Palestinian leader, asking him to direct the Palestinian fighters inside the Church of the Nativity to seek a peaceful resolution. "To remain inside," the bishops observed, "only serves to have them die of hunger and thirst, or bring about desperate attempts that would have mortal consequences for all." The bishops warned Arafat that if the situation in Bethlehem continues to deteriorate, "the negative consequences… could be attributed to your person, and will bring about an even more serious isolation for your people."

During his Sunday public audience in Rome, Pope John Paul II renewed his appeal for prayers for the successful resolution of the confrontation. The Pope said, "Every day I go to Bethlehem in spirit, to the basilica of the Nativity." He continued: "That place-- and all the holy places-- must be immediately restored to prayer an pilgrims, to God and to man!"

Inside the basilica in Bethlehem, Franciscan friars reported that they have been without water and electricity for 10 days, and their food supplies are now exhausted. One friar told the Fides news service: "Perhaps these are the last few hours before the batteries of our portable phones go flat. Then we will be completely cut off from the world."