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JERUSALEM (Reuters) - The pursuit of a gang of grave robbers has led to the discovery of an ancient church outside Jerusalem that may contain the burial place of the biblical prophet Zechariah, Israeli authorities said Wednesday.
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-meter-long mosaic floor.
Beneath the church's altar is a burial chamber that the Antiquities Authority said may have been the tomb of the prophet Zechariah, known from the eponymous book in the Bible, written around 520 BC.
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.
The thieves often vandalize or destroy archaeological remains before Ganor's unit can catch them.
But in this case, he said, a group of Palestinians from the West Bank who were plundering ancient coins revealed the location of the lost church, some 40 km (25 miles) south of Jerusalem.
Shai Bartura, Ganor's deputy, said the building, which was used between the 5th and 7th Century AD, was a unique discovery because of its size and good condition.
Like many ancient structures, it was built on even older foundations dating back to the Roman Empire and the period of the second Jewish Temple. It includes a subterranean complex of caves and tunnels used by Jewish rebels fighting the Romans in the Bar Kokhba revolt of 132 AD.
Editing by Tim Pearce