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AP-Photolur Photo: Black smoke billows skywards in Manger Square, near the Church of the Nativity compound, left, in the West Bank town of Bethlehem, Thursday

By Emil Danielyan and Armen Dulian in Prague

An Armenian monk seriously wounded in the besieged Church of the Nativity compound is in "stable condition" after undergoing surgery at a Jerusalem hospital, the Armenian Apostolic Church said on Thursday.

Armen Sinanian, 22, is an Armenian national and religious student at Jerusalem's St. Jacob monastery. He was reportedly shot in the back on Wednesday, just below his right shoulder, as he stood in front of a window in his room inside the Armenian part of the church compound in the West Bank town of Bethlehem.

Bishop Aris Shirvanian of the Armenian Patriarchate in Jerusalem told RFE/RL by telephone that Sinanian’s life is not in danger. Shirvanian and Patriarch Torgom visited him earlier in the day.

Catholicos Garegin II said in a statement from his Echmiadzin headquarters that he is praying for the recuperation of the wounded clergyman and "the security of the Armenian community in the Holy Land." Garegin, who had already voiced concern at the situation around one of Christianity's holiest sites, renewed his calls for a peaceful settlement of the escalating Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

The Armenian foreign ministry, for its part, said it is “extremely concerned” about Wednesday’s shooting incident and urged Israel not to storm the Church of the Nativity compound. While condemning Palestinian “terrorism as a phenomenon,” official Yerevan called for an immediate withdrawal of Israeli troops from the occupied West Bank towns.

The Catholicos's press office said the head of the Armenian Church is "in constant touch" with the Jerusalem Patriarchate which looks after the Bethlehem basilica together with the Roman Catholic and Greek Orthodox Churches.

More than 200 armed Palestinians remain holed up in the basilica, built on the traditional site of Jesus Christ's birth. Sinanian was among seven Armenian clergymen and over 40 Franciscan and Orthodox monks and nuns trapped inside its compound for more than a week. His parents residing in a village in the southeastern Armenian province of Syunik will be received by Garegin later this week, according to the Catholicos's press office.

According to Bishop Shirvanian, there are now four Armenian clerics, one of them aged 90, remaining in the Armenian section of the compound and none of them intends to leave it. Shirvanian said they maintain no contacts with the Palestinian militants, adding that Israel has rejected the Armenian clergy’s call to allow them to escape to Gaza and thereby end the standoff. He said the Armenians have also requested a meeting with U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell who was due to arrive in Jerusalem late Thursday.

Meanwhile, reports from the conflict zone said Sinanian was apparently shot by an Israeli soldier who mistook him for a Palestinian gunman. The Israeli army initially said the monk was shot by one of the armed Palestinians as troops were delivering supplies to the clergymen in the compound. But a senior military official who spoke on condition of anonymity told the Associated Press that preliminary results of an army investigation into the shooting indicated that the monk was shot by an Israeli soldier.

The army spokesman's office had no immediate comment.

Israel says the nuns and priests are held hostage by the gunmen, a claim denied by some church leaders. Israel says it will not end the siege until the gunmen have surrendered.
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