CHURCH ON SITE OF JESUS' BIRTHPLACE IS NOW
by Stan Griffin
Below the major altar of Bethlehem's Church of the Nativity is a cave (Grotto of the Nativity) that contains a manger where, it is believed, Jesus Christ was born. The church is one of Christianity's most holy sites and is visited yearly by thousands of believers. A Christmas Eve Midnight Mass is always well attended.
This sacred location has become a pawn in continuing warfare between the nation of Israel and Palestinians living on the West Bank of the Jordan River. Embers of a centuries-old struggle were stirred up by a series of suicide bomb attacks on Israeli civilians. On March 29 Israeli forces moved into several West Bank settlements (including Bethlehem) searching for militants "threatening the security of Israel."
On April 2 a group of approximately 35 Palestinian gunmen being pursued by Israeli soldiers stormed into the Church's compound. The entire area was immediately surrounded by tanks and personnel carriers. A blimp-shaped balloon equipped with cameras was flown over the complex to track the movements of those inside. A smoky haze hangs over the scene.
Announced as still inside the compound (in addition to the gunmen) are 100 other people; at least 50 children; a group of Christian clerics (including Franciscan monks). Food and water is in short supply, and conditions are described as "filthy."
Nine Palestinian youths were released, the largest group set free since the stalemate began. Three Armenian priests were taken out by Israeli troops after they climbed to the church roof with a sign: "Please Save Us." Negotiations for an end to the situation continued.
Catholic officials have demanded that Israel stop the violence which endangers priests' lives and also puts in jeopardy a location that is historically important to Christians. Israel counters with their belief that the church is being used as a sanctuary and a base of terrorism against them. The Vatican has tried to negotiate a compromise which would send the militants into permanent exile in Palestinian-controlled Gaza with international guarantees. Israel's Security Cabinet insists that the gunmen surrender unconditionally.
Israel is also under pressure from other sides. The United Nations, European countries, and the United States are asking them to pull their troops out of the entire West Bank. Israeli officials insist they will finish the job they started: put a stop to terrorist suicide bombings.