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Blocks church access { November 25 2002 }

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Israelis Block Church Access
Monday, November 25, 2002


BETHLEHEM, West Bank -- On the first Sunday since Israel reoccupied Bethlehem, troops barred Christians from worshipping at the Church of the Nativity, one of Christianity's most sacred shrines.
There were no signs that the Israelis were near an end to the operation in the biblical town, despite a State Department call for troops to leave as soon as possible, with Christmas just a month away.
Christian tradition holds that Jesus was born in a grotto under the Bethlehem church.
Israeli forces rolled into Bethlehem, in the West Bank just south of Jerusalem, early Friday after a Palestinian suicide bomber from Bethlehem blew himself up on a Jerusalem bus a day before, killing 11 passengers and injuring more than 40 other people.
The army has been conducting house-to-house searches for militants there. Soldiers arrested an Islamic Jihad leader on Sunday, the military said. Since Friday, more than 30 Palestinians have been detained, including three men believed to be connected to suicide bombing operations, army officers said.
Church bells rang Sunday, but Manger Square, like the streets of Bethlehem, was empty Sunday as soldiers enforced a strict curfew, confining the town's residents to their homes.
At the fortresslike 4th century church, a few monks and nuns sang hymns and prayed. Israeli forces allowed about 15 Franciscan monks to enter the ancient structure. Greek Orthodox priests celebrated a liturgy. The more modern St. Catherine's Church next door, where the Christmas Eve Mass is conducted, was empty.
Meanwhile, a U.N. investigator arrived here Sunday to inquire into the fatal shooting of a British U.N. worker by an Israeli soldier on Friday, as a dispute over the incident deepened.
The Israeli Army said its soldiers had been responding to gunfire coming from a U.N. compound in the Jenin refugee camp, in the West Bank. But after an initial inquiry, the U.N. agency that administers the camp rejected that account as "incredibly incorrect." Paul McCann, a spokesman for the U.N. Relief and Works Agency, said the compound was clearly marked as U.N. property.
"We know that we had control of it, there were no militants inside it, and there was absolutely no firing coming from inside it," said McCann, who visited the site Sunday.

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