Fence route sparks concerns in Vatican over holy sites

Aluf Benn

Haaretz Correspondent and Reuters

The Vatican is successfully mustering international pressure on Israel to change the route of the separation fence in Jerusalem.

U.S. Senator Rick Santorum (Rep.-PA), a Catholic supporter of Israel, sent letters last week to Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell on the problems the fence is causing for the region's Christians.

In his letter to Sharon, Santorum stressed he supports Israel's right to build the fence, but is worried by reports that the current route will interfere with Christian holy sites. As an example, he cited the claims by Vatican representatives that the fence will impede religious processions to Jerusalem from the tomb of Lazarus on the Mount of Olives.

Santorum added that he was happy to hear that Israel and the Vatican resumed talks in July, but said that such talks were useless so long as the Israeli team had no mandate to discuss the fence.

Israeli officials said in response that efforts were being made to take Christians' needs into account when building the fence, and that discussions are now underway with Christian representatives over creating a special gate in the fence near Lazarus' tomb to ensure that the processions will not be hindered. However, they added, the fence has not come up in talks with the Vatican.

Meanwhile, the Non-Aligned Movement of developing countries condemned the fence Wednesday, saying it infringes Palestinian rights. In a document approved by senior officials, the 115-member movement, now meeting in Durban, South Africa, called for dismantling the barrier, in line with a recent International Court of Justice decision that termed the fence illegal.

"Israel is in continued violation of international law, this is a flagrant human rights violation, and this is not acceptable," the document said. The document was handed yesterday to the movement's 17-member Committee on Palestine, which is chaired by Malaysia.

PLO Foreign Minister Farouk Kaddoumi told reporters the Palestinians want the movement to seek international sanctions against Israel to pressure it to accept the court's decision. Egypt implicitly backed this call, saying it "calls on the United Nations... to consider what further action is required to end the illegal situation resulting from the construction of the wall" and "calls upon the member states to ensure cessation of the construction of the wall."