April 15, 2002

BETHLEHEM, West Bank (AP) - Pope John Paul II placed a phone call to Franciscans priest inside the besieged Church of the Nativity Monday, sending prayers and thanking the faithful for their ``Christian testimony,'' the Vatican said.

About 60 members of the clergy are inside the church compound, under siege by Israeli forces since more than 200 armed Palestinians broke into the holy site on April 2. Israel claims they are being held hostage, but the clerics deny that.

Israeli forces entered Bethlehem two weeks ago, as part of an offensive into West Bank towns in retaliation for a series of Palestinian suicide bombings that killed dozens of Israelis.

A statement from the Vatican said the pope sent his prayers ``in these moments of particular difficulty.''

Father Ibrahim Faltas, who is in charge of the church marking the traditional birthplace of Jesus, said the pontiff told him that ``he prayed for us, he feels for us, and is doing his best to end this crisis.

``The message was told to all the people inside the church and it raised up our morality and spirits. As priests in the Church of Nativity the message raised our hopes, especially after he thanked us for our deep steadfastness and courage during this crisis,'' Faltas said.

Faltas said the call took place while the pope was meeting with Michel Sabbah, the Latin Patriarch for the Holy Land, in Rome.

Faltas said they did not discuss ways to resolve the crisis.

The Vatican had been involved in negotiations with Israeli and Palestinian officials, but the impasse remains deadlocked.

Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon told CNN on Monday that the United States had agreed to an Israeli plan that wanted gunmen inside the church would give themselves up, either to stand trial in Israel or be deported from the region.

Israel has said it will not send forces into the church but will not remove its forces around the church until those inside give themselves up.

Earlier Monday, Israeli troops exchanged fire with armed Palestinians holed up in the church. Two men from inside the compound were later evacuated by an Israeli ambulance, witnesses said, the first to surrender. One was wounded and the other had suffered a nervous breakdown, a Palestinian policeman said.

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