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Bishop Fears Murder Attempt on Vanunu
The uncertain fate of the Israeli whistle-blower given church sanctuary

By Ian MacKinnon

JERUSALEM, April 27 - The Anglican bishop who has given Mordechai Vanunu, the Israeli nuclear whistle-blower, sanctuary in a Jerusalem cathedral said yesterday that he had grave concerns for the life of the Christian convert amid threats from Jewish extremists.

" My fear is that someone with a gun will come in here and get him," the Right Rev Riah Abu al-Assal, Bishop of Jerusalem, said. "We wouldn't like anything to happen to him anywhere in the world, least of all while he's in the sanctuary of a church."

However, the bishop, who is thought to be under pressure from the Israeli authorities to evict Mr Vanunu from St George's Cathedral, declined to give an open-ended commitment to allow him to stay as long as he wished.

Despite real fears for Mr Vanunu's safety from extremists - Yitzak Rabin, the former Prime Minister, was assassinated by a right-wing Jew - security around the cathedral's residential compound in east Jerusalem was non-existent yesterday.

Occasional visitors were buzzed through the electronic front gate and permitted to wander unchallenged through the high-walled gardens of gravel paths, roses and ancient olive trees where Mr Vanunu, 50, had been seen eating lunch in the afternoon sun.

The Israeli Government has not offered protection to Mr Vanunu, who is widely detested for leaking the country's nuclear secrets to The Sunday Times in 1986. Tommy Lapid, the Justice Minister, said dismissively that Mr Vanunu, who was in jail for 18 years, had hundreds of supporters around him to ensure his safety.

Family members refused to divulge Mr Vanunu's next move, but conceded that he could not rely on the Church's hospitality indefinitely. Meir Vanunu, his brother, said they were aware of the cathedral's delicate position in relation to the Israeli authorities.

A lawyer from Israel's civil rights' association, which is helping Mr Vanunu to fight restrictions that prevent him leaving the country for at least a year, said that the case could take a month to come before the Supreme Court and up to three months to conclude. Part of the petition due to be filed by the end of the week will include fears for Mr Vanunu's safety if he is forced to remain in the country for 12 months, particularly since Israel's security establishment leaked his planned address.

" There's no more hated man in Israel than Mordechai Vanunu," Meir Vanunu said. "Without a shadow of doubt, while he remains here his life is at risk. If he can't have security in a church, where can he have it?"

The bishop, who had given up his living quarters to Mr Vanunu while he was out of the country until his return yesterday, said that he would have to consult church authorities and Mr Vanunu to decide on the next steps for the guest.Nevertheless, he believed that it was the Church's duty to provide sanctuary to those in fear for their lives, just as Jews had received shelter in convents and monasteries during the Second World War.

" If the Church is not a shelter, where is?" Bishop al-Assal said. "The Church doesn't offer sanctuary to every homeless person that comes along. But those in need, like Mordechai Vanunu, who have spent a long time in prison and suffered for their beliefs, deserve our help."

The bishop said that if the Israeli authorities did not want Mr Vanunu to remain, they would have to put their demands in writing. Two police officers who had visited Mr Vanunu at the church on the night of his release turned up again yesterday at his quarters.

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