April 08, 2002

VATICAN CITY (AP) - Hours after Israel troops exchanged fire Monday with Palestinians holed up inside the Bethlehem church which marks Jesus' birthplace, Pope John Paul II said the violence in the Holy Land has reached "unimaginable and intolerable levels."

John Paul, in a brief speech during an audience with a charitable group, did not mention the shooting nor the blaze which burned in a courtyard near the Church of the Nativity.

A Palestinian policemen who was trying to put out the fire was shot and killed by an Israeli sniper, a fellow policemen inside the church compound said. Israelis and Palestinians accused each other of causing the fire. John Paul's speeches to various groups are often written in advance, but Monday's address expressed the pope's concern over the violence that has engulfed places in the Holy Land these days as Israel presses its offensive in the West Bank.

"The dire consequences of the tragic events of Sept. 11 are still with us,'' John Paul said. "The spiral of violence and armed hostility in the Holy Land -- the land of our Lord's birth, death and resurrection, a land held sacred by the three great monotheistic religions -- has increased to unimaginable and intolerable levels."

He added that "throughout the world, innocent men, women and children continue to suffer the ravages of war, poverty, injustice and exploitation of all kinds."

"Indeed," said John Paul "we are currently experiencing a very difficult international situation."

The Vatican press office said that it had no immediate comment on the developments at the Nativity basilica complex.

Six days earlier more than 200 Palestinian fighters dashed into the church for refugee during gun battles with Israeli troops.

A Franciscan priest involved with caring for Catholic sites in the Holy Land met with top Vatican officials Monday. The friar, the Rev. David Jaeger, called the attack on the church "unconscionable." Jaeger was heading back to Jerusalem later Monday.

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