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By Emil Danielyan

Catholicos Garegin II has expressed concern over the fate of Armenian monks and other Christian clerics trapped in the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, scene of a continuing standoff between Israeli troops and armed Palestinians. The head of the Armenian Apostolic Church urged both sides to save the Bethlehem basilica, built on the traditional site of Christ's birth, from “desecration and devastation.”

The call was contained in a message sent by Garegin to Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat on Friday, the Armenian Catholicosate in Echmiadzin reported the next day. “We are greatly worried that in recent days armed hostilities have extended into Bethlehem’s Holy Nativity sites where the presence of armed groups has caused a serious threat to the security of those pan-Christian sacred places,” the message says.

Some 240 Palestinian gunmen were holed up in the basilica complex, which includes the Church of the Nativity. The standoff began on Tuesday when the Palestinians battling advancing Israeli troops found refuge in the compound. They have rejected Israeli calls for surrender.

Besides seven Armenian priests and monks, there are several dozen Franciscan and Orthodox monks as well as four nouns trapped inside the complex. The Armenian Church looks after the Church of the Nativity together with the Roman Catholic and Greek Orthodox denominations.

According to the Associated Press, Franciscan officials in Rome offered to mediate in the conflict on Friday amid claims that the Palestinians are holding the monks against their will. But the Franciscan order released a statement firmly denying that the friars were hostages. The statement claimed that the Israelis may be spreading the rumors in “an attempt to legitimize an armed, and maybe, imminent attack" on the Christian shrine.

Garegin did not blame any of the conflicting parties for what the minister-general of the Franciscans, the Rev. Giacomo Bini, described as a "very grave" situation. The Catholicos said he is praying for “peace and reconciliation” between the Israelis and Palestinians and a quick end to the cycle of violence. He said he is also praying for “the souls of the innocent victims” of the Middle East conflict.
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