JERUSALEM, Feb. 10, 2000 (Newsroom)--Israeli officials say there is little hope of resolving a potentially dangerous dispute between the keepers of the Holy Sepulcher before Pope John Paul II arrives on March 20.

Israel claims to have done its best to work out a fair compromise between the churches and places responsibility for the failure of negotiations on church leadership. "We do not want the Vatican to blame us if something goes wrong during the pope's visit," said Shlomo Ben-Ami, Israel's public security minister.

Israel has been trying to persuade the rival Greek Orthodox, Armenian, and Latin patriarchs--who control different parts of the shrine--to agree on a new door to relieve the crush of expected tourists for millennium celebrations.

Negotiations, however, have ended without an agreement. One narrow door serves as the only entrance and exit point for the church, which was built by the Crusaders 900 years ago on ground believed to be the site of Christ's crucifixion and resurrection.

After four years of negotiations presided over by the Israeli Ministry of Religious Affairs, a compromise seemed imminent. The controlling denominations of the church agreed in principle that a new emergency door was necessary, but last week after further exhausting talks the patriarchs broke off negotiations.

In dispute was the location and size of the door and which denomination would hold the key. Israeli officials now say that there is little hope of reaching an agreement on the door before the papal visit. In the past, representatives of the churches have argued over issues such as who had the right to clean the doorstep.

Israel is taking a cautious approach to the dispute, not wanting to upset religious sensitivities.

"There is no question a second door is needed," the office of Israel's public security minister stated. "But out of respect for the sanctity of the site, the Israeli government will not take unilateral action to open an emergency exit. We will only do so with the agreement and co-ordination of the heads of the churches."

Israeli police expect the Jerusalem shrine to receive five times more visitors than usual this year, a certain prescription for disaster, they believe. Also, a number of countries previously hostile to Israel are establishing diplomatic relations, which will bring more visitors.

Sri Lanka, for example, has announced that 300,000 Sri Lankan Christians will visit after March 1 when flights begin between the two states begin.

Police have particular concerns about the run up to Easter, around the time that the pope will visit and hundreds of thousands of pilgrims are expected.

Without a second door, officials warn that escape routes in a fire or other emergency will be severely limited. The Ministry of Religious Affairs said that the risk of fire is especially high during the Orthodox Holy Fire ceremonies before Easter when worshipers crowd into the building to light candles or hold torches.

Five hundred pilgrims died in a stampede at Easter in 1840 when the church caught fire during the Holy Fire ceremony.

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