Subscribe Today

Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, June/July 2002, pages 66-67, 112

Christianity and the Middle East

The Siege of the Church of the Nativity: A Quest for Credibility

By Fred Strickert

When the magi first visited Bethlehem 2,000 ago, King Herod and his advisers projected an image of a benevolent ruler. “Please return to report to us,” they requested, “so that we too may worship the newborn king.”

In a dream, however, the magi were warned to “Beware of King Herod. His reputation of treachery endangers all the boy babies of Bethlehem. Return home by an alternate route.”

Thus the early visitors to Bethlehem found themselves on a quest for credibility.

Similarly, wise men and women found themselves confronting conflicting reports of the Israeli army’s April siege of the Church of the Nativity—especially during the first weeks.

Cameron W. Barr explained the dilemma in his April 9 Christian Science Monitor story, “Two Sides, Two Stories, One Church.” AP correspondent Ibrahim Hazboun informed readers that “The Israeli military prevented reporters from reaching the church to independently assess the rival claims.”

Forced Entry or Invited Refuge?

“According to Prime Minister Ariel Sharon,” Barr wrote, “Palestinian ”˜murderers...have commandeered the church and are holding the clergymen hostage.’ In the Palestinian version, fighters, clergy, and civilians are defending themselves and their church from an Israeli invasion.”

“The standoff at the church began Tuesday [April 2],” The Associated Press reported April 4, “when the fighters, who had been engaged in heavy gunbattles with advancing Israeli troops for hours, dashed a few dangerous steps from the Palace Hotel to the Church of the Nativity....Wearing military vests and boots and carrying rifles, they ran as another turned and provided cover, wildly firing an assault rifle.”

In a similar vein, the April 3 Washington Post reported that priests “were forced to give refuge to Palestinian police and militiamen, who shot their way in after running battles with Israeli troops firing from helicopter gunships and from tank-mounted machine guns.”

Subsequent reports described how the Palestinians “forced their way into the Church of the Nativity and barricaded themselves inside” (Jerusalem Post, April 11), and “stormed their way into the shrine” (Reuters, April 14).

By contrast, Eddy Calis of Via Dolorosa reported April 5 in an exclusive interview with lawyer Tony Salman, who was among those caught inside: “They were left with two choices,” Salman explained, “either to be killed in cold blood by the Israeli occupation forces or run for their lives to the church. They chose the latter. This happened right after the Israeli tanks shelled Omar Bin Khattab mosque last Tuesday located just across the church’s square. They ran into the church for protection. For the last 1,700 years, the Church of the Nativity has embraced the poor and the persecuted, and it will keep doing that in these difficult days, too.”

Similarly, Dean Ross Jones of St. George’s College in Jerusalem relayed by e-mail a conversation with a photographer working with an Italian news team who had been present in the church from the beginning, before being evacuated. The photographer related how he was called to one of the secondary doors: “A group of 30 to 40 Palestinians were trying to get in,” he recalled, “some armed and some not, with the plea, ”˜Please help us. Only the Church can save us now. They are going to kill us.’ They were allowed to enter with the condition that the guns not be used.”

This version was confirmed by Latin Patriarch Michel Sabbah, who announced that same day, “The basilica, a church, is a place of refuge for everybody, even fighters, as long as they lay down their weapons.”

While Agence France-Presse (AFP) reported the Catholic cleric’s words on April 3, at the beginning of the standoff, the American press did not immediately pick them up. Not until April 20, in fact, did The Washington Post’s Craig Whitlock report that, even though the gunmen had shot off a lock, they had been both expected and welcomed by the clergy inside.

How Many Gunmen?

According to Salman’s phone conversation with Via Dolorosa’s Calis, there were 245 persons, including 10 wounded, trapped inside the church. Robert Fisk, writing in the British Independent April 4, immediately noted that this number included, along with the priests, “at least 100 Palestinian civilians seeking the sanctuary of the church,” and “at least 10 Palestinian militiamen from Tanzim movement.”

Still others finding refuge in the church, according to Calis, were a large number of Palestinian policemen who had been on duty around Manger Square at the time of the Israeli incursion.

The Associated Press, however, seemed bent on painting a simplistic image of a standoff between Palestinian gunmen and Israeli soldiers.