Get the latest updates as we post them — right on your browser

. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Diplomats Negotiating Fate of American Nuns

JERUSALEM -- The case of two American nuns who refuse to leave a Russian Orthodox monastery in the West Bank city of Jericho is being negotiated at "the highest levels" by U.S. officials, one of the nuns said.

Palestinian police evicted four nuns and monks of the Russian Orthodox Church Abroad from the Jericho Garden Monastery on Jan. 15, apparently at the request of its more powerful rival, based in Moscow.

Palestinian officials had said they had papers showing the Moscow Patriarchate owned the property and were acting on a request made by Patriarch Alexy II, who met earlier this month with Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat.

A political attach? from the U.S. consulate, Victoria Coffineau, had visited the nuns Monday, said Sister Maria, a sister of a former aide to U.S. President Bill Clinton, George Stephanopoulos.

"We were told today by Coffineau that there are a great deal of contacts at the highest levels in Washington, Moscow and the Palestinian areas," Sister Maria said Monday from her mobile phone inside the compound. "Right now we're just at a standstill, laying low."

Earlier, Palestinian officials reported that U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright raised the issue in a meeting this month with Arafat. Arafat promised Albright to abide by the law, according to the officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity. They did not clarify if that meant favoring the Church Abroad claims.

Sister Maria, 40, from New York City, said three men belonging to the Moscow Patriarchate were living inside the monastery.

About six Palestinian police are constantly guarding the area, Sister Maria said - a presence she appreciates, despite the earlier evictions. "The Russian men might be inclined to use physical force to get us out if the Palestinian [police] weren't here," Sister Maria said.

The evicted nuns have been handing packages of food to Sister Maria and Sister Tina Cesana of San Francisco. There are no shower facilities at the monastery and only an outside bathroom, Sister Maria said. "It's an uneasy situation but you trust in God," she said.

The dispute between the churches dates back to the years after the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution, when bishops opposed to the church's support for the atheist government broke away and set up a church in exile.

The Church Abroad controlled Russian shrines in the Holy Land until 1948, when Israel recognized the Moscow Patriarchate's claims as a gesture of gratitude to the Soviet Union for its recognition of the Jewish state.

Church property in east Jerusalem and the West Bank remained under the control of the exiled church through Jordanian and later Israeli control.