BETHLEHEM, Palestine: A fire broke out in Bethlehem's Church of the Nativity early Tuesday, just hours after Pope Francis wrapped up a three-day Middle East pilgrimage that saw him visit the shrine.
Bethlehem Governor Abdel-Fatah Hamayel told AFP it was a small fire that had broken out accidentally when an oil lamp fell over just before dawn, causing some damage to fabric wall hangings inside the Grotto of the Nativity itself.
"It was an accident that started when an oil lamp fell over. The fire started on its own, then burned itself out," he said.
The fire, which was discovered at around 4:30 a.m. (0100 GMT) when the security guard smelled smoke, broke out in the cave underneath the 4th-century basilica where Christians believe Mary gave birth to Jesus.
Inside, the charred remains of several brightly-coloured wall hangings hung limply against the cave walls which were blackened with soot. Two ornate icons of Mary holding Jesus sustained smoke damage.
"We have asked those who work there many times to put out the oil lamps and candles when the church closes at 6 p.m.," Hamayel said, adding that similar accidents had happened in the past.
Pope Francis visited the church Sunday after celebrating an open-air mass in Bethlehem's Manger Square at the start of the Israeli-Palestinian leg of his Middle East pilgrimage, which began in Jordan on Saturday.
The basilica, which was built by the Roman emperor Constantine, attracts more than a million pilgrims every year, making it the biggest tourist attraction in the occupied Palestinian territories outside Israeli-occupied East Jerusalem.