Palestinians turned the church area into a fortress after Israeli forces entered Bethlehem in their version of the War on Terror. Israel, meanwhile, has accused Palestinian fighters of exploiting the holy site. The standoff is currently eight days old, with rhetoric flying from both sides.
According to Ha'aretz, an independent newspaper based in Tel Aviv, Israel Deputy Foreign Minister Michael Melchior acknowledged the showdown in Bethlehem could cause Israel "great damage and had to be handled extremely carefully so that it did not become an international catastrophe for the government."
Speaking on Israel Radio, Melchior said that "the holy places belong neither to Israel nor to the Palestinians, but to the Church and require special care." He said that Israeli military forces "had been given clear instructions regarding the handling of this delicate situation."
Melchior added, "While Israel is at war with Muslim fundamentalists, we do not need a war with the entire Christian world."
According to Ha-aretz, "the deputy foreign minister told Vatican representatives in a meeting Monday that Israel would make every effort to find a solution to the current standoff."
The International Christian Embassy Jerusalem (ICEJ) news service reports that a local Arab clergyman has tried to "exploit" the situation in Bethlehem by appealing "to traditional Christian anti-Semitism, saying those inside the Church of the Nativity were like the early disciples of Jesus who had to hide inside locked rooms out of fear of the Jews."
ICEJ pointed out that the man failed to note "all those disciples were Jewish, and they had upset the authorities by preaching the Gospel, not by engaging in murder and terrorism."
Last week ICEJ issued a statement condemning the "deliberate and provocative exploitation" of the Church of the Nativity and other religious sites in Bethlehem as a safe haven, along with their use of "innocent civilians as human shields."
Speaking as "a voice for millions of Christians worldwide, we cannot accept this transgression on the sanctity of the Church of the Nativity and we thoroughly denounce it," said Rev. Malcolm Hedding, Executive Director of the ICEJ. "It is a premeditated offense by militant outlaws who know it is a place central to our faith and thus would provide them unquestioned refuge.
"Christians and church leaders everywhere should be outraged by this action and join in condemning it," Hedding added in the statement. "The current conflict is a difficult and complex one, but everyone must recognize that these Palestinian gunmen took the battle inside this Church by design."
Caught in the Crossfire
Regardless of who is "at fault" militarily, innocent people are suffering. Patrick Sookhdeo, international director of the Barnabas Fund, wrote on April 4: "Yesterday I made several phone calls to Christian leaders in Bethlehem and Jerusalem. Their voices echo in my head still, communicating by their broken tones, as much as by their simple words, the hopelessness and helplessness they feel.
"Like other Bethlehem civilians, the Christians have been confined to their homes for days," Sookhdeo wrote. "They literally keep their heads down, not daring even to look out of the windows in case they are shot. They eat whatever they happen to have in the house. Water and electricity are now cut off in various areas. Some are injured and some are mourning for relatives who have been killed."
According to the Barnabas Fund, most Christians in Bethlehem are now "desperately poor," having lost their jobs in the tourist trade when the intifada began in September 2000.
George S. Rishmawi with Holy Land Trust sent this message from Christians of the Bethlehem area: "There are a few Palestinian fighters who entered the church seeking a safe shelter and laid their faith in the hand of the Christian priests. Patriarch Sabbah publicly declared that those fighters, among the many who entered the church, have laid their arms down and are under the protection of the church."
Sabbah wrote: "Israel is spreading lies about the situation inside the church, claiming that the Palestinian fighters inside the church are taking the priests as hostages. But in our phone talk with Father Ibrahim Faltas, he denied all of those allegations. He said that all people inside are sharing the little food they have together. Nuns are taking care of the injured people who are still there because Israel is preventing ambulances from evacuating them."
Tony Salman, a Palestinian Catholic trapped inside the Nativity church, filed this report with the Latin Patriarchate on a cell phone April 5: "Franciscans, Greek Orthodox and Armenian priests inside the church are making sure everyone is having something to eat. They exhausted all flour they had in store to make bread for everyone during the first two days. Now everyone is having one small meal a day, which contains either a little bit of spaghetti or rice - all that left in the church."
This report is from Rev. Gustaf Odquist with the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Jerusalem: "On April 4, three groups of Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) soldiers entered the compound of the Evangelical Lutheran Christmas Church in Bethlehem. When Rev. Dr. Mitri Raheb heard the soldiers entering, he telephoned the bishop in Jerusalem, alerting him to the impending danger to the property and to his family.
"Bishop Dr. Munib Younan immediately began making telephone calls to the Israeli military and government authorities and various diplomats, demanding that the soldiers be removed from the church property and that Rev. Raheb and his family be kept safe."
The Christmas Church is one of six congregations of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Jordan (ELCJ) working in Jerusalem, Palestine, Jordan and Israel - a Lutheran World Federation (LWF) member church.
According to the report, the soldiers went from room to room in the compound for nearly two hours, breaking into offices and forcibly detaining Rev. Raheb in a corner.
Finally, a second commander arrived who ordered the soldiers out, "spoke kindly with Rev. Raheb" and assured him that he and his family would be safe. The commander and some of the soldiers then secured broken windows and doors facing the street so the property would be protected. The gift shop could not be secured because two tank shells had caused considerable damage.
"We in the Lutheran church denounce such acts and demand that the international community and the State of Israel secure the protection and the sanctity of church compounds and properties," Bishop Younan said.
But perhaps there is one light in all the darkness and insanity: "Easter attendance at churches in the region was far beyond anything they've ever had," according to Mark Snowden, a spokesman for the Southern Baptist International Mission Board. "In spite of this turmoil and incredible stress, Christian workers are finding that people are requesting 'Jesus' films and asking questions about Jesus more than they ever have."
One Israeli congregation grew fearful when an Arab man walked into their service, Snowden told Baptist Press. After a brief conversation revealed that the man meant no harm, he joined the congregation for worship.
"We praise God for that," Snowden said. "Christians in Israel don't want to alienate anyone, especially Arabs who are seeking answers from Christians."
PHOTOS by AP/Wide World Photos:
Top - A Nov. 15, 1997 photo of Palestinian police armed with AK-47s parading through Bethlehem's Manger Square with the Church of the Nativity, traditionally believed to be the birthplace of Jesus, seen in background. Palestinian Christians complain that since the Palestinians took charge in Bethlehem, Christmas celebrations are getting rowdier. Part of a dwindling minority, Palestinian Christians often feel like strangers these days in the town of Jesus' birth. (AP Photo/Jacqueline Larma)
Middle - A Catholic priest holding a crucifix walks out of the entrance to the Church of the Nativity where posters bearing the picture of Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat are posted in the West Bank town of Bethlehem -- Dec. 24, 2001.
Bottom - Palestinian schoolboys from the Terra Sancta Catholic school in Bethlehem pray in St. Catherine's chapel in the Church of the Nativity last November..