Fire Breaks Out at Bethlehem Church That Is Believed to Be Birthplace of Jesus

A minor, accidental fire broke out at a church in Bethlehem on Tuesday at the place where Christians believe Jesus was born.

Father Ibrahim Faltas, an official at Bethlehem's Church of the Nativity, told The Associated Press that the fire was accidentally started Tuesday when a candle ignited curtains in the church's grotto. Although the fire was quickly put out, there was reportedly some smoke damage to the walls. The grotto is believed to be the area where Jesus was born, and the church is built over the holy location.

"The curtains around the grotto caught fire from a candle and that is all that happened," Father Faltas told The Associated Press, adding "It was not arson."

According to The Guardian, some wall hangings and icons of Mary and Jesus also suffered damage from the small incident, which was detected in the early morning hours of Tuesday when a security guard smelled smoke and rushed down to the grotto, also described as the cave, to find the small burning fire.

The Church of the Nativity was built in the 4th century by the Roman emperor Constantine, and is believed to hold great religious significance to those of the Christian faith. The basilica, a World Heritage Site, sees more than one million pilgrims per year.

The basilica experienced its minor fire just hours after Pope Francis departed from his three day visit to the Middle East, during which he visited the Church of the Nativity on Sunday. According to The Associated Press, Francis said he considered it a "great grace" to be able to pray at the spot where Mary gave birth to Jesus.

Although Father Faltas and Bethlehem police were clear in saying Tuesday's minor fire was an accident, there have been other incidences of hate crimes in Israel in the recent weeks. Shortly after Pope Francis delivered a mass at the Abbey of the Dormition in Jerusalem on Monday, an arsonist reportedly set fire to small wooden crosses and a Bible in the abbey's crypt.

"Someone entered the church, went down to the crypt, picked up a book used by pilgrims and took it to the small room near the organ and set it on fire, burning wooden crosses," Brother Nikodemus Schnabel told the AFP of the incident that is currently being investigated by Jerusalem's police.

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