• PALESTINE \ Nov 23, 2004
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    Fears for Bethlehem Christmas Church after earthquake
Fears for Bethlehem Christmas Church after earthquake Rev Mitri Raheb, whose steeple dominates the skyline in the birthplace of Jesus, told Scotland on Sunday parts of the shrine broke off when the quake hit the region on Wednesday, and he fears more may collapse.

Other key Holy Sites in Bethlehem also suffered damage, including the Church of the Nativity. Raheb said: "The cornerstone, which is at the top of the steeple, came tumbling down and fell on the streets. It weighs over 80 pounds and it is 60 by 60 centimetres. Thank God it did not hit anyone.

"But that was just half of the cornerstone. The other half is still up there and we are worried that if a snowstorm comes, then the other half might collapse, as well as an iron-cross that is on the top of the church."

The "cornerstone" of the building, something that Jesus referred to in parables, is not the foundation block, but the final stone put in place on hold the rest of the structure together. Raheb said: "Our fear is that the second part of it will collapse, more and more stones will just start collapsing one after the other."

He added that he would soon seek foreign financial support to ensure that safety is restored at the site.

The earthquake?s tremors also produced cracks in some of the most famous shrines of Bethlehem. Small fractures are now visible in the arched ceiling of the Church of St Catherine, famous for the worldwide broadcast of midnight Mass on Christmas Eve each year. The Roman Catholic sanctuary is connected to the Church of the Nativity, built over the cave where tradition holds Jesus was born.

Franciscan monk, Father Ibrahim Faltas, said: "Engineers [from the local council] came and said the cracks are not severe."

Nevertheless, repair work will begin soon in the church which was fully restored in 1999 for the millennium celebrations marking 2,000 years since the birth of Christ.

Faltas said he also believed some splinters, barely visible, had been made in the timber beams supporting the Church of the Nativity.

The area, which has two major fault lines, is prone to earthquakes. The last major one was in 1927, and killed more than 200 people. Some experts believe another devastating earthquake is due to hit the region in the next 50 years.

The damage is likely to be felt most severely in Jerusalem, home to key Christian, Muslim and Jewish holy sites.

A report issued last month by Israel?s Geological Survey found that the walled Old City of Jerusalem, where the sites are centred, would be among the worst hit areas.

"The layer below is not made of solid rock, but rather a kind of rubble," said the centre?s director, Amos Bein. "Those weak foundations could magnify an earthquake?s seismic wave."

Most at risk would be the Temple Mount, the site of the Jewish holy Temples in biblical times, and the area many see as being at the heart of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. It is the most sacred area in the Jewish world and also holy to Muslims.