EVEN SAPIR, Israel, March 5 (AP) - Father Moses, a bearded monk in a black robe, prayed sadly Monday beneath a tree, next to a wooden cross, a few small icons and an oil lamp - belongings he collected before he was thrown out of a disputed monastery.

A day before, Israeli court officials broke into the St. John of the Desert monastery, enforcing an order to evict seven Melkite monks and return the site to its owners, the Franciscans.

Father Moses, removed from the secluded monastery his Melkite sect leased in 1978, curled up beneath the tree and watched workers from the Franciscan order come and go, opening and closing the monastery gates behind them.

The monastery was built by the Franciscans in 1922 on a hillside of trees and wildflowers where Christians believe John the Baptist, who baptized Jesus, lived in solitude in a cave.

For more than two decades, the Melkite monks prayed, raised honey bees, made wood carvings and silver crosses and painted icons in the monastery west of Jerusalem.

The end was abrupt. ``They (court officials) used an electric saw on a Sunday to destroy the door of a church, coming in yelling, insulting, blaspheming,'' said Father Elisha, who stayed outside while six other Melkite monks locked themselves in a chapel in a last-ditch effort to prevent the handover of the monastery.

The Melkite sect belonged to the Greek Orthodox Church until 1724, when it became Greek Catholic. About 55,000 Greek Catholics live in the Holy Land.

The Melkite monks said the matter should have been brought before the Vatican rather than an Israeli court. Their lawyer, Yossi Schwartz, complained that court officials broke a law protecting holy sites when they broke into the monastery.

``This is a violation of a holy place,'' he said. ``It's a church, a place of prayer. It's a systemic violation of the commitment of the Israeli state that told the world that Israel would not violate religious places.''

The Franciscans filed suit in an Israeli court in 1994, noting that the Melkite lease had expired and was not renewed. Sunday's eviction was the end of the legal battle.

The evicted monks plan to go to the Melkite Patriarchate in Jerusalem's Old City. They said leaving the monastery is difficult emotionally.

``My own monastic vocation is linked to this place, the place where I feel the call to follow this life. It is this place,'' said Father Elisha. ``But being monks, we are supposed to have a poor life and not be attached to any earthly belongings and, well, we have to look ahead.''

``I hope they will leave in good will,'' said Abdel Masih, administrator of the Franciscan Custody of the Holy Land. ``The Scriptures say if you go to the house of someone and they receive you, you are welcome. If not, you go away.''

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