May 10, 2002

Q. Why have Christians not protested the siege of the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem?

A. The Church of the Nativity has had a turbulent history since it was first built back in the fourth century. The most recent confrontation is no exception.

Situated in the heart of Bethlehem, about five miles from Jerusalem, the church is built over a grotto, or a cave, where the Virgin Mary is said to have given birth to Jesus. Today the site of the birth is marked by a 14-point star on a marble stone. The original church was destroyed and rebuilt several times through the years as Bethlehem passed from one ruler to the next. In the Middle Ages, the Muslims claimed it; later the Crusaders.

During each successive invasion, it has been used as a refuge for people fleeing danger. During Israel's War of Independence in 1948 and later during the Six Day War in 1967, scores of Bethlehem residents fled their homes for the safety and shelter of the church.

"There's a tradition in Christianity of the church being used as an asylum in times of war," said Lucas van Rompay, a professor of Eastern Christianity at Duke University. "Although many of the people now inside are not Christian, nevertheless the idea of using the church as an asylum is well-known in Christian history."

Since 1995, the church has been under the control of the Palestinian Authority. Its chairman, Yasser Arafat, has made a pilgrimage to the site each Christmas except this past one, when Israelis blocked him from going because of the hostilities. Arafat, who is a Muslim, is the representative leader of a minority of Palestinian Christians in the territories.

The church is cared for by three Christian groups: the Greek Orthodox Church, the Armenian Church and the Roman Catholic Church. Three-fourths of the friars, monks and nuns in the church belong to the Roman Catholic Franciscan order.

The standoff in Bethlehem began April 2, when more than 200 people fleeing Israeli forces ran into the church. Those inside included suspected Palestinian militants, policemen, protesters, civilians and clergy. At least 13 militants were wanted by Israel for their alleged involvement in bombing and shooting attacks on Israelis.

The complexity of the standoff may be one reason Christians didn't speak in one voice on the matter. Evangelical Protestants are strong supporters of Israel -- their support stemming in large part from their belief that Jews need to be restored to the Promised Land before the second coming of Jesus can occur.

Liberal and mainline Christians, such as the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the U.S.A., have tended to side with the Palestinians, and especially the Christians among them, and have called for an end to the occupation and the creation of a Palestinian state. Pope John Paul II came close to saying something similar when he said he was deeply troubled by the siege at the church in Bethlehem and the violence elsewhere in the Holy Land.

On the whole, though, Christians remain divided about that holy site. "Christians don't understand exactly what's happening and with whom to sympathize," van Rompay said. "It's difficult to lay blame on one of the parties."

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