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The hill-top church was destroyed by an earthquake some 1,300 years ago and lay partly buried until detectives from Israel's Antiquities Authority, pursuing a gang of antiquity thieves, noticed an elaborate doorpost poking through the earth. The robbers got away -- they were caught a few months later at a site nearby -- but after weeks of digging, archaeologists uncovered the remains of the church. It was about the size of a basketball court and contained fallen marble pillars and a nearly pristine 10-metre-long mosaic floor.
The claim, which a number of experts have based on Christian sources and an ancient diagram known as the Madaba Map, has not been proved and is still being studied, they said. "It's been years since we've made a find like this," said Amir Ganor, head of the Antiquities Robbery Prevention unit.
Ganor is an archaeologist who carries a handgun. His team spends much of its time trying to catch thieves, spending nights lying in ambush or setting up stings for crooked antiquities dealers.