Muslim recalls 15 days in Church of Nativity

Bethlehem: The young man dashed into the building to escape gunfire on the street, and he had to get shot to get out.

April 23, 2002|By Bill Glauber | Bill Glauber,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

JERUSALEM - He recalled flickering candles and Muslim prayers, random gunfire and occasional fear.

But most of all, Taher Manasra remembered spending long, long hours in the grotto in the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, a holy place under siege.

"I liked the place where Jesus was born," Manasra said yesterday, lying in a hospital bed recuperating from a gunshot wound that led to his evacuation last week from the besieged church.

Manasra, 20, is one of the few to make it out of the Church of the Nativity, where about 200 Palestinian gunmen, civilians and clergy have been holed up since April 2, surrounded by a formidable force of Israeli troops.

The young man, a resident of a Palestinian refugee camp, said he found himself in the wrong place at the wrong time and ran into the church to escape gunfire on the street. He found sanctuary there, a young Muslim who got through some of the difficult hours saying his prayers by the light of a flickering church candle. Fifteen days later and 12 pounds lighter, he said, he was evacuated to the hospital.

The standoff is both highly symbolic and deeply dangerous, with heavily armed soldiers arrayed around a church that is holy for the world's Christians, some of whom believe that it is built over a grotto where Jesus was born.

Diplomats, politicians and clergy have sought to break the deadlock, which is among the formidable obstacles preventing any chance of a cease-fire between Palestinians and Israelis.

So far there have been no results in attempts to resolve the standoff, though the Palestinian mayor of Bethlehem, Hanna Nasser, told the Associated Press last night that Israeli and Palestinian officials planned to negotiate this morning.

Despite pulling back from most Palestinian cities and towns, Israeli troops are still out in full force in Bethlehem. The standoff in Bethlehem now seems inextricably linked to the situation in Ramallah, where Israeli troops form a ring of steel around Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat's wrecked compound.

Bethlehem was as volatile as ever yesterday, as gunfire flared and puffs of smoke drifted around the church. Palestinians inside the church and Israelis outside each blamed the other for starting the shooting.

Conditions inside the church were said to be deteriorating, according to an envoy sent by the Archbishop of Canterbury, George Carey.

"There is no food, the sanitary conditions are terrible and some of the people are sick or wounded," Canon Andrew White told the Associated Press.

Apparently, some of those inside are slowly being driven to desperation. Last week, a 16-year-old boy fled, too dirty and hungry to worry about the possibility of being shot. Sunday, five others escaped, scaling the compound walls on ladders left by the Israelis.

Last week, the Israelis offered a deal to end the standoff, giving those wanted for crimes a choice of facing justice in Israel or accepting permanent exile. Israeli officials contended that those inside wanted to accept the offer, but it was rejected by Arafat.

"I don't know how it will end," Manasra said yesterday. "But I hope it will end in peace."

As he talked inside a ward at Hadassah Hospital, Manasra lay in a corner bed guarded by three Israeli soldiers cradling M-16s. A nurse brought him kosher food and tea. He ate slowly, methodically, making sure to keep the crumbs off his wispy beard. He lost 12 pounds while in the church, he said. He appeared gaunt.

His brown eyes were glassy, his bushy dark hair was unkempt. A cast covered his left leg from the ankle to the upper thigh. When he wanted to roll over and sleep, an Israeli soldier put down a rifle and adjusted the bed.

Manasra, who lives in a refugee camp called Deheisheh, had been out buying vegetables for his sister April 2 when gunfire erupted in Bethlehem.

"I was on my way home," he said. "There was shooting and one of the Palestinian police told me to enter the church and take shelter. The doors were open and other young people went in there."

He was panicked, with the staccato of gunfire outside and chaos inside the church. But it was a priest who calmed him, told him not to be scared because they would be safe.

"The priest brought us some cakes they had in the church," he said. "And some water. That's all we had for 15 days."

There was no way out for Manasra and 50 or so other young civilians. There were clergy there, too. And there were about 200 gunmen bearing Kalashnikovs, he said.

"It was impossible to run away," he said. "The Palestinians told us anyone who would try to run away would be shot by the Israelis."

So they hunkered down for the long siege.

Manasra said he and the other young civilians were moved the second day into the grotto under the church, where they spent most of their time in the dark. They were only allowed out for brief periods to exercise, wash and relax.

"There were no lights," he said. "Only the priests brought us water. We didn't sleep at night because of the shooting. Otherwise, we lit candles and prayed."

Did he say his Muslim prayers?

"Yes," he said in a whisper.

On April 17, desperate with hunger, he foraged for food in the churchyard by a statue of the Virgin Mary.

"I veered aside and was fired upon," he said. "I didn't see who shot me. I was told it was a soldier."

Bleeding in the leg, he was taken back into the church, where a priest applied a bandage. A few hours passed before arrangements could be made to move him by ambulance to a hospital. Three days after he arrived at Hadassah Hospital, he underwent surgery to repair the gunshot damage.

Now, he recuperates, waiting to be discharged, waiting for the end of the siege.

"I will shave the first day I get home," he said. "Change my clothes. And go to the church. I want to say thank you to the church."

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