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West Bank nuns defiant in fight to keep monastery.

Two American nuns, including a sister of former Clinton aide Mr George Stephanopoulos, stubbornly stood their ground yesterday in a Jericho monastery that Palestinian police tried to seize over the weekend.

Mr Stephanopoulos's sister Maria said she was bruised in a scuffle with police and at one point clung to window bars to resist eviction in the property dispute that could turn into a diplomatic headache for Palestinian leader Mr Yasser Arafat.

"I just held tight to the bars of the chapel window, and right in front of me was a crucifix with Christ and that gave me strength," said Sister Maria, aged 40. She said that during the first 36 hours of the two-day standoff, she refused to eat and drink, but has since ended her protest fast.

Sister Maria said she has not spoken to her brother, now a political commentator, but that she understood he was aware of the dispute. Mr Arafat is due to meet President Bill Clinton at the White House on Thursday .

At issue is a property dispute between the exiled Russian Orthodox Church and its more powerful rival, based in Moscow.

The Russian Jericho Garden Monastery until now was in the hands of the exiled, or White church, but Palestinian police raiding it on Saturday said they had documents showing it belonged to the Red church in Moscow.

Yesterday, Palestinian policemen patrolled outside the compound and permitted a doctor to see the nuns and brought them food. "They have been nice, not at all like on Saturday," Sister Maria said.

Sister Maria said she would not leave the compound voluntarily. Palestinian security officials said they would not evict the nuns by force.

In Saturday's raid, Palestinian police removed four nuns and monks from the compound. However, Sister Maria, headmistress of a girls' school near Jerusalem, was able to get into the monastery and was later joined by Sister Tina. Sister Maria said two monks from the Russian-based church were also in the compound.

Palestinian officials said they were acting on a request made by Moscow Patriarch Alexy II. .

The origins of the dispute date back to 1917.

After the Russian revolution, the communist regime seized control of the Russian Orthodox church, while remnants of the defeated anti-communist armies set up a church-in-exile.

The church-in-exile controlled Russian shrines in the Holy Land until 1948, when Israel recognised the Moscow Patriarchate's claim as a gesture of gratitude to the Soviet Union for its recognition of the Jewish state.

l Israel blamed Arab militants for a bomb attack that injured 13 people yesterday in the coastal town of Hadera.

There was no immediate claim of responsibility, but Israel's Police Minister, Mr Shlomo Ben-Ami, said he suspected involvement of the Islamic Jihad group, a small group of Palestinian militants opposed to Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking.

The blast came during a critical phase in Israel's peace talks with the Palestinians and Syria. Prime Minister Mr Ehud Barak said last week that Israel was bracing for renewed attempts by Islamic militants to disrupt the talks.
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Publication:The Birmingham Post (England)
Date:Jan 18, 2000
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