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Bethlehem mayor appeals to pope in Nativity standoff

Church of the Nativity
A flare falls over the Church of the Nativity amid heavy gunfire Tuesday in Bethlehem.  

JERUSALEM (CNN) -- Pope John Paul II should get involved in the standoff at the Church of the Nativity, Bethlehem's mayor said Wednesday, adding that he plans to extend an invitation for the pontiff to do so.

About 200 Palestinian gunmen -- including 30 Palestinians whom Israel says are terrorists -- have been holed up in the church since earlier this month, when gun battles raged in the streets of the holy town. The church is built on the site where many Christians believe Jesus was born.

"At the end of the road, if we cannot reach a solution, I am very glad to extend an invitation to the Holy See to come and visit the Holy Land and to come and see the mother of churches, really, in Bethlehem," Mayor Hanna Nasser told CNN. "This is what I am intending to do."

But Jerusalem Mayor Ehud Olmert questioned the wisdom of such a move.

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"You want to humiliate the pope by involving him in this bloody, violent affairs of Palestinian gunmen?" Olmert asked. "Why does he have to be involved?"

Olmert said Nasser and the Palestinian Authority should be responsible for removing the gunmen from the church, which is surrounded by Israeli soldiers.

"It's so simple," he said. "It just has to be done by the authorities in Bethlehem, and it's very easy."

Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon said Monday that Israel had agreed with the United States on a plan to end the standoff at the church, though a U.S. official said later the plan was "not going well."

Under the plan, the 200 would give up their weapons. Those whom Israel has not accused of terrorist activity would be freed, while the others would have the choice of facing trial in Israel or accepting lifetime exile in a third country.

"Regardless of what the prime minister of Israel has said vis--vis those who are inside the church," Nasser said, "our duty is to find a way ... to protect these people and how to protect the Church of the Nativity specifically."

Palestinian Information Minister Yasser Abbed Rabbo told CNN that the Palestinian Authority would never hand over Palestinians to end standoffs with Israel.

Asked if there was a scenario under which the Palestinian Authority would turn over them, Rabbo said, "Of course not."

Israeli tanks, armored vehicles and troops have encircled the church for more than two weeks.

Though the Israel Defense Forces said it had not entered the church and was not attacking it, Palestinian security sources said IDF soldiers Tuesday threw what were believed to be tear gas grenades inside the south entrance of the church, at the Franciscan Monastery.




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