PLO accuses Israel of stealing Christian artifact from Bethlehem
A senior Palestinian official on Monday accused Israel of stealing a historical Christian artifact from the West Bank city of Bethlehem.
The Palestine Liberation Organisation's Hanan Ashrawi said the object was "a baptismal font dating back to the Byzantine era", taken overnight from an undisclosed location in the city where Christians believe Jesus was born.
Ashrawi's English-language statement was released at the same time as one from the Israeli defence ministry department responsible for civilian affairs in the Israeli-occupied Palestinian territories, COGAT.
COGAT said that in an "operation that was carried out near dawn" its staff, backed by troops, "returned a rare archaeological relic that was stolen approximately twenty years ago" by antiquities thieves.
COGAT said the object, a fifth-century stone baptismal font about 1.5 metres tall, had been taken from the Tel Tekoa archaeological site.
The Israeli-controlled site is near a settlement in the occupied West Bank between Jerusalem and Bethlehem.
COGAT did not specify where the font had been located Monday or where it was taken, and did not immediately respond to AFP's queries.
The Jerusalem Post said the relic was reinstated at Tel Tekoa.
COGAT's statement said it would "continue working tirelessly to preserve the sites and the archaeological relics throughout Judea and Samaria (the West Bank) and to prevent antiquities thieves from looting the history of the region."
But Ashrawi said it was Israel which was doing the looting, calling the nightime operation "an abominable act of thuggery and cultural appropriation."
"This systemic policy of plunder is a war crime that must not go unpunished," she added.