Israelis Rebury 7th-Century Skeletons

ISRAELI officials will give a nonsectarian burial to several hundred 7th-century skeletons unearthed last year, hoping to end a dispute between Christians and Jews who claim the bones.

It was not clear whether the religious groups fighting over the bones had agreed to the idea. The government said only that the skeletons would be buried within a few days in a grave ``on neutral ground.''

The bones were unearthed during excavations of a Byzantine cave near the Jaffa Gate in the old walled city of Jerusalem, where a highway is being paved.

Fervently Orthodox Jews rioted at the time and continued to demand a Jewish burial, arguing they believe at least some of the skeletons belonged to Jews.

Israeli archaeologists have supported the contention of the Greek Orthodox Church that the bones were those of Christians.

Efrat Orbach, spokeswoman for the Israeli Antiquities Authority, said last Wednesday that there was a massacre of Christians near the site about AD 614.

``We know beyond any doubt that they were Christians killed by Persians at the beginning of the 7th century,'' Orbach said.

She said Greek religious inscriptions on the cave walls, candlesticks marked with crosses and Byzantine coins dated the same year, indicated that the skeletons most likely were those of Christian victims of these slayings.

Orbach said the Antiquities Authority would press for a Christian burial because that is what officials of the Foreign and Religious ministries previously promised Greek Orthodox leaders. At stake, she said, is Israel's credibility as a guardian of holy places in Jerusalem, a city revered by Jews, Muslims, and Christians.

``We hope [the government] will do the right thing and turn the bones over to the Greek patriarch,'' she said.

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