Ugly details of standoff emerge as Bethlehem church empties

Gunmen and civilians escape 39 days of trash

clerics say blame shared

May 11, 2002|By Peter Hermann | Peter Hermann,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

BETHLEHEM, West Bank - They slept on dirty blankets lining the sides of the church sanctuary, ate dinner on the wooden altar of the Armenian Orthodox and turned the small foyer near the tiny Door of Humility into a urinal.

The more than 100 Palestinians who walked out of the Church of the Nativity yesterday after a 39-day standoff with the Israeli army left behind piles of old shoes, grungy blankets drenched with sweat and food turned green with mold.

A baptismal font had been used to wash clothes and pots. The stone floor, between tall marble columns and under ornate hanging lamps, was littered with empty bean cans, gas canisters and white altar candles that had been used for heat and light.

For more than a month, gunmen who had shot their way into the compound in company with dozens of civilians to escape soldiers lived like squatters inside the dark, fortress-like church built 1,500 years ago over the grotto where Christian tradition says Jesus was born.

The Israeli army pulled out of Bethlehem last night after militants wanted by Israel agreed to surrender; 13 accepted eventual exile in Europe, and 26 agreed to leave the West Bank for the Gaza Strip. For the residents of Bethlehem and two adjacent villages, Beit Jala and Beit Sahour, the end of the standoff meant the end of an army-imposed curfew, and a chance to see what happened inside the church.

Struggling to see in the darkness, Sandy Shahin, 24, held her infant daughter, Lourd, and sobbed as she gazed at the mess. She wiped away tears and lifted her shirt to her nose to guard against the stench. "I can't believe they did all these things," she said. "I can't believe that the place I come to pray, which used to be clean and smell so good, now smells like this. It looks like a garbage dump."

Priests in the church said they would begin cleaning today, and hold the first public Mass.

"The basilica is very dirty, but it is not bad enough to kill the joy that the church is finally free," said Archbishop Pietro Sambi, the Vatican's ambassador to Israel, who toured the walled complex last night. "I don't blame anyone. I'm just glad that this is over."

Interviews with a handful of priests willing to talk yesterday indicated that both the Israelis and the Palestinians had mixed truth with fiction in their depictions of the past 39 days. Many circumstances, however, remain in dispute.

There was damage inside the church and other buildings in the compound, but not the widespread destruction reported by the Israeli army. Several Palestinian gunmen stole icons and ransacked a rectory looking for food, but there was no wholesale looting.

Palestinian gunmen did shoot from church windows, and Israeli soldiers shot back - killing seven people in the church or its courtyards, including a mentally disabled bell ringer who wandered into the square and apparently did not understand soldiers' commands to stop. A soldier accidentally wounded a monk by shooting through a window.

Priests could not say yesterday which side initiated the near-daily gunfire.

The neck of a statue of the Virgin Mary, the Madonna di Lourdes, was broken by bullets. The priests blamed this on the army. A centuries-old mosaic on one of the church walls was nicked by a bullet.

A room in the Franciscan convent was destroyed by a fire that the priests said was sparked when the army tried to break into the building. All the windows are broken, and materials that were to be used to build an organ were destroyed.

An Armenian Orthodox priest complained about what Palestinians did with an altar situated at the front of the sanctuary, the surface now littered with plastic forks, empty cans of peas and beans and plates encrusted with food. "They turned it into a table," said the priest, who would not give his name. "They desecrated it."

The piles of trash offered a glimpse of how the men lived. Some had pillows; others had small stoves or heaters. They used candles when the power went out.

The people inside stayed in their respective groups, each claiming a section of floor: The gunmen stayed with one another; so did Palestinian police, civilians and a group of peace activists. For two weeks, they endured the presence of two decomposing bodies, which were eventually carried out in makeshift coffins.

The militants constantly argued about whether to surrender, several priests said. One priest said he counseled the men to give up violence, and once pleaded with a gunman not to shoot from the church windows.

Priests sidestepped the central question of whether they and the civilians inside were hostages, as the Israelis claim. People interviewed inside said they could have left at any time; the priests said they stayed to guard their home.

"We were caught between two fires," said Father Nicolas, a Franciscan priest who is master of the clerics. "Inside were the Palestinians, and outside was the Israeli army. It was not a situation we were looking for. We were not protagonists. We just happened to be there."

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