BETHLEHEM : A fire broke out in Bethlehem’s Church of the Nativity early Tuesday, just hours after Pope Francis wrapped up a three-day Middle East pilgrimage which saw him visit the shrine.
Bethlehem governor Abdel-Fatah Hamayel told AFP it was a small fire which had broken out accidentally when an oil lamp fell over just before dawn, causing some damage to fabric wall hangings inside the Grotto of the Nativity itself.
“It was an accident that started when an oil lamp fell over. The fire started on its own, then burned itself out,” he said.
The fire, which was discovered at around 4:30 am (0100 GMT) when the security guard smelled smoke, broke out in the cave underneath the 4th-century basilica where Christians believe Mary gave birth to Jesus.
Inside, the charred remains of several brightly-coloured wall hangings hung limply against the cave walls which were blackened with soot. Two ornate icons of Mary holding Jesus sustained smoke damage.
A statement from Bethlehem police said a wooden-topped bowl had caught fire at the entrance to the grotto which caused “candles to fall down and set fire to curtains,” with a number of wall tiles also cracking in the heat.
Hamayel said similar accidents had happened in the past.
“We have asked those who work there many times to put out the oil lamps and candles when the church closes at 6 pm,” he said.
Pope Francis visited the church on Sunday after celebrating an open-air mass in Bethlehem’s Manger Square at the start of the Israeli-Palestinian leg of his Middle East pilgrimage, which began in Jordan on Saturday.
The basilica, which was built by the Roman emperor Constantine, attracts more than a million pilgrims every year, making it the biggest tourist attraction in the occupied Palestinian territories outside Israeli-annexed east Jerusalem.
In a separate development, police were on Tuesday investigating an arson attempt at Jerusalem’s Church of the Dormition which occurred shortly after the pope finished celebrating mass in the nearby Upper Room.
“Someone entered the church and went down to the crypt, took a book that is used by pilgrims to a small room next to the organ, and set some wooded crosses on fire,” Benedictine Abbot Nikodemus Schnabel told AFP late on Monday.
Inside the room, which smelled strongly of smoke, a small pile of burned crosses lay smouldering in a heap, an AFP photographer reported.
Germany’s deputy ambassador to Israel, Benedikt Haller, visited the German-funded church on Mount Zion Tuesday, a statement from his office said.
“I am shocked by yesterday’s fire,” it quoted him as saying. “Fortunately nobody was hurt.
“We condemn all forms of violence against religious sites and representatives of religious institutions.
“Religious institutions in Israel must be assured adequate protection to ensure that such incidents do not occur again.”