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Photo: Israeli soldiers, front, stop Orthodox Patriarchs and heads of Christian Churchs in Jerusalem at an army checkpoint on the way to Bethlehem in Jerusalem on Monday

BETHLEHEM, West Bank (AP, AFP, RFE/RL) - An Armenian monk was shot and seriously wounded Wednesday at Bethlehem's Church of the Nativity compound. The Israeli army and Palestinians each claimed the other had opened fire.

The monk, Armen Sinanian, 22, was undergoing surgery at Jerusalem's Hadassah Hospital, where spokeswoman Yael Bossem-Levy said he was in serious condition. Bishop Arrs Shirvanian, of the Armenian Patriarchate in Jerusalem, said the injured monk was shot in the back, just below his right shoulder, as he stood in front of a window in his room inside the church compound. The bishop said the shot apparently came through the window.

A Palestinian policeman, one of more than 200 armed Palestinians who remained holed up in the basilica built over Jesus Christ's traditional birth grotto, told the Associated Press by telephone that Israeli troops shot a monk after breaking open a door. The policeman refused to give his name. He said the monk's blood still stained the church's stone floor near the spot where he had been hanging clothes to dry.

"An Armenian monk was wounded this morning by an Israeli bullet in the housing complex of the Armenian convent" that forms part of the church grounds, Father Maroun Lahham told Agence France Presse. Lahham, rector of the Latin seminary in Beit Jala neighboring Bethlehem, said he received the information by telephone from the priests inside the Church of the Nativity, one of the holiest sites in Christianity.

However, Capt. Jacob Dallal, an Israeli army spokesman, said it was the Palestinians who opened fire, hitting the Armenian monk. He said the shots were fired at troops as they made a delivery of food intended for the 60 priests and nuns inside the church compound. Israeli soldiers, he added, did not return fire. They then treated the monk and took him to Hadassah Hospital, Dallal said.

Israeli troops have surrounded the church, where Palestinian gunmen have been holed up for more than a week. An Israeli tank remained outside the compound and a white balloon with surveillance cameras floated above, anchored to Manger Square by ropes. Israeli President Moshe Katsav, in a letter dated Tuesday and released Wednesday in Rome by his country's embassy to the Holy See, said Israeli forces are under orders not to fire on churches.

The wounded Armenian monk was one of seven clerics of the Armenian Apostolic Church and several dozen Franciscan and Greek Orthodox monks trapped inside the complex for over a week. On Friday, Catholicos Garegin II expressed concern over their fate, and urged the Israelis and Palestinians to save the Bethlehem basilica from “desecration and devastation.”
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