Fire in Grotto of the Nativity in Bethlehem

… a few hours after Pope Francis returned to Rome. The Guardian:

A fire broke out in Bethlehem’s Church of the Nativity on Tuesday, just hours after Pope Francis wrapped up a three-day Middle East pilgrimage during which he visited the shrine.

Bethlehem’s governor, Abdel-Fatah Hamayel, said it was a small fire caused by an oil lamp falling over just before dawn, leaving some damage to fabric wall hangings inside the grotto.

The fire was discovered when the security guard smelled smoke – the blaze 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 had 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.

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 investigating an arson attempt on Tuesday, 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.

 

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