JERICHO, West Bank, Feb. 11--A proposed compromise to break the month-old deadlock over a contested monastery here involving two American nuns of the Russian Orthodox Church outside Russia (ROCOR) includes a sharing of the property for at least the short term with the rival Moscow-based Russian Orthodox Church.

The tentative plan, mediated by U.S. consular officials here in recent days, calls for the monastery site to be divided between the two church organizations along an existing wall that runs through the property pending a full court review of the ownership dispute.

In the meantime, monks affiliated with the Moscow church will reside in the 19th century pilgrims' hospice on one side of the monastery grounds, while ROCOR representives--either the two nuns or monks--will occupy a two-room modular unit on the other side of the three-acre property.

A chapel with mosaics dating back to the sixth century--the central feature of the pilgrims' way station--is to be closed pending the court review of the ownership case, said Sister Maria Stephanopolous.

Sister Maria is the sister of former White House aide George Stepanopolous and is one of the two nuns who have been holed up in the monastery for more than a month.

"It was understood that this is only temporary," she said. "We have been living in this area for 70 years, and we want this issue to go to court. We want a Palestinian court to say who these properties belong to, with no more games."

In New York, Nicholas Ohotin, a ROCOR spokesman, said, Friday that "is a verbal understanding only. Nothing is on paper. That's all still being worked out."

Sisters Maria Stephanopolous, 40, and Xenia Cesena, 35, have been at the property since Jan. 15, staying put in an effort to maintain their church's claim to the site, which is within Palestinian-controlled West Bank territory.

Ohotin said it was unclear if the nuns would leave the monastery once a firm agreement is reached.

"Sister Maria told me today she is determined to remain there until the full property is returned to out church, as it should be," he said.

Palestinians want to turn the land over to the politically more powerful Moscow church, which claims it is the legal owner.

ROCOR officials have sought to bring U.S. pressure to bear on the Palestinians and gain a meeting with Yasser Arafat, the Palestinian leader, who so far has declined to schedule such a session.

The Jericho incident has gained international attention and drawn in government and church officials from the United States, Russia and the Palestinian Authority.

ROCOR was created by anti-communist exiles following the 1917 Bolshevik revolution who split off from the Soviet-dominated Moscow Orthodox Church patriarchate. The Moscow church today is closely aligned with the current Russian government.

The Palestinian Authority says the Moscow church is the rightful owner of the Jericho property as heir to the Tsarist-era Russian Orthodox Church, which originally purchased the site some 150 years ago.

The nuns have refused to leave the monastery, insisting that ROCOR has legal title.

"We are confident that we have legal title and insist only that the rule of law be followed," Sister Maria said. "We will just lay low in the property until then."

In Web site postings, Sister Maria has been highly critical of both Palestinian and Moscow church and Russian government actionsLetter to the World. She maintains that her church's religious freedom has been violated for political reasons.

In Moscow, meanwhile, Patriarch Alexy, head of the main Russian Orthodox Church, said the United States was responsible for the crisis Itar-Tass article.

The patriarch maintained that "U.S. authorities and American special services" wanted to keep the Moscow church and the ROCOR from uniting.

ROCOR has been steadily losing its properties in Israel and Palestinian-controlled areas to the more powerful Moscow church.

During Arafat's recent visit to Washington for further talks on the Middle East peace process, the issue came up during discussions between him and Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, according to a U.S. official. The State Department is involved because ROCOR is a U.S.-based church group and the two nuns are Americans.

The Jericho incident marks the latest stage in the gradual but controversial transfer of "white" Russian church sites in the Holy Land to the "red" Moscow-based patriarchate. The transfers have been slowly taking placeover the past 50 years.

The two nuns managed to enter the Jericho monastery compound--where Moscow-church representatives are also holed up to support their claim to ownership--after Palestinian Authority security police staged a surprise raid and expelled five ROCOR monks who lived at the site.

The two women have refused to budge and Palestinian police have grudgingly allowed them to remain as diplomatic maneuvering continues.

"We had five monks in the building, somebody knocked, and they opened the gate," said Abbess Elizabeth, a ROCOR official in Jerusalem. "The Palestinian police walked in, ordered the monks against the wall, took their mobile phones from them, and then carted them off to the police station.

"Fortunately, there were other people passing through the area at the time, including Sister Maria, and she made her way to the church and was allowed to go into the property, because she was sitting in the middle of the road, creating a big scandal."

Sister Maria, born Anastasia Stephanopolous into a prominent Greek-American family. The family is Greek Orthodox, but Sister Maria joined the more conservative ROCOR while in college and became a nun. Since 1998, she has been the administrator of a ROCOR school for girls in Bethany near Jerusalem.

Her parents are high officials in the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America. Nikki Stephanopolous is the archdiocese's public relations director. The Rev. Robert Stephanopolous is dean of the Cathedral of the Holy Trinity, the archdiocese's flagship church in New York. Her brother, George, is currently an ABV TV political analyst. The Jericho incident can be traced to a recent visit to the Holy Land by Alexy, who asked Arafat at that time for the keys to the Jericho property.

Since the start of the nuns' protest at the monastery, the property has been surrounded by Palestinian police. The nuns are given fresh--but cold-- food daily by ROCOR supporters who remain out the monastery gates.

U.S. officials have visited often, but have not taken any firm stand on who should retain control of the property, noting the issue involves complex legal and diplomatic issues.

Palestinian Authority officials were apparently taken by surprise at the degree of international publicity the incident has received.

Nikki Stephanopolous said in New York she believed the Palestinians had no idea that one of the nuns involved was part of a family with high-level political and media connections.

"We are trying to handle it; we don't want to be involved between the `white' and the `red' church," said Saeb Erakat, a senior Palestinian Authority minister.

Erakat said the Palestinian Authority was now trying to find a solution that would "preserve" the rights of both sides in the conflict.

Al Quds, a Palestinian newspaper, published in Jerusalem, about a 30-minute drive west of Jericho, quoted Col. Jibril Rajoub, a top West Bank Palestinian security official, as saying the Moscow church is the rightful owner of the monastery.

"We acknowledge the existence of one Russian church and we behave accordingly," he said, noting that the monastary property was purchased by 19th century Russian pilgrims. "Nobody from America or Britain has brought these lands but it was the Russian people themselves who bought them and we are proud today to return them to their lawful owners."

This is the second time ROCOR clerics have been forcibly evicted by the Palestinian Authority from a major Palestinian site.

In 1997, Palestinian Authority police entered a "white" Russian church in the West Bank city of Hebron in a similar surprise raid and ordered the monks off the property immediately, giving them only five minutes to pack their belongings. That incident, however, failed to create a diplomatic backlash.

Prior to 1948, the "white" Russian church controlled extensive Russian Orthodox holdings throughout British Mandate Palestine. However, when Israel was created, and Russia recognized the young Jewish state, those properties were promised to the Moscow-based church as a note of gratitude.

"We became the illegitimate children," said Abbess Elizabeth, a ROCOR official in Jerusalem.

ROCOR's holdings in Palestinian-controlled areas of the West Bank have been gradually confiscated as Arafat has sought to curry favor with Moscow.

What remains, said the abbess, are the church's institutions in the east Jerusalem area, including the Church of St. Mary Magdalene in Gethsemane, the Russian Monastery of Ascension on the Mount of Olives, and the church-operated school run by Sister Maria in Bethany.

"Gradually," said the abbess, "they are closing in on us."

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