April 11, 2002

CAIRO, Egypt (AP)--Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat told a packed Cairo cathedral Thursday that he will defend sacred Holy Land sites in the face of Israeli aggression and called the attacks on the Church of Nativity a ``crime.''

Speaking by cell phone from his West Bank, Ramallah, compound, Arafat told some 5,000 people inside the Abbassiya Cathedral that the ``Palestinian people will die in defending ourselves'' against Israeli military attacks on Palestinian territories.

Egyptian religious leaders, political figures, artists and community chiefs were among the crowd who had gathered for the event called the National Conference for the Support of the Palestinian People.

``The (Israeli) occupation is going beyond limits, not only against ... our children, our women ... (but) against our Christian and Muslim sanctuaries,'' Arafat said.

``The aggression that continues today against the Church of the Nativity ... is a crime ... we will continue to defend these churches regardless of anybody. We will die in defending ourselves,'' he said to loud applause.

Since April 2, Israeli forces have surrounded Bethlehem's the Church of the Nativity, in which some 200 Palestinian gunmen are holed up. The ancient basilica, one of Christianity's holiest shrines, is built over Jesus' traditional birth grotto. Along with the gunmen, several dozen clergymen are inside the compound.

The head of the Coptic Orthodox Church, Pope Shenouda III, said to Arafat, ``All our people are with you, we ask God that he saves you from the situation you are in ... we hope to come visit you there in Palestine.''

Both Shenouda and Grand Sheikh Mohammed Sayed Tantawi of the al-Azhar institute, the highest Islamic authority in Egypt, said they remained opposed to visiting Jerusalem while it remains under Israeli control.

Palestinian Cabinet Minister Nabil Shaath also addressed the crowd, saying ``Palestine suffers in all its sacred places ... but we fight in Palestine despite the difficulties. We will fight for peace in Jerusalem.''

Conference organizer Farid Zarhran said the event is the first political forum convened in an Egyptian church since 1919.

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