April 05, 2002

BETHLEHEM, West Bank (AP)--A Palestinian priest Friday counted up the damage at his church compound: 35 doors broken, 55 windows shattered and a crack in 19th century stained glass.

An angry Rev. Mitri Raheb said that 45 Israeli soldiers stormed buildings of the Evangelical Lutheran Christmas Church on Thursday, locking him in his office for two hours, cursing and threatening him at gunpoint as they searched offices, an artist's workshop, a guest house and conference center. The army had no comment.

Bethlehem's religious leaders have been caught in the middle as Israel's hunt for gunmen and militants in the city, now in its fourth day.

At the ancient Church of the Nativity, about 400 meters (yards) from Raheb's church, dozens of priests and nuns remained trapped among some 240 armed Palestinians who refused to surrender to Israeli soldiers waiting outside.

On Friday, four priests left the besieged basilica that sits above Jesus' traditional birthplace, said the Rev. Gianfranco Pinto Ostune of the Franciscan press office in Rome. Two of them left for health reasons, he said, and another had to leave to travel to Italy.

Ostune said that the clergy inside the church want to stay put in order to safeguard one of Christianity's holiest shrines.

``We are custodians of these places,'' he said. ``There are stones there that were trod on by Christ,'' he said.

The Vatican's Missionary News Service said an envoy of the Holy See in Israel negotiated the departure of the four priests.

Israeli forces prevented reporters from getting close to the fourth-century stone Church of the Nativity.

The standoff began Tuesday, 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.

Soldiers have called out on loudspeakers for the gunmen to surrender but none has done so. The army has said gunmen fired from inside the Church of the Nativity and other holy sites, a claim the Palestinians have denied.

On Thursday, gunmen and others inside the church said Israeli soldiers blew open a back door leading into a small courtyard of the church and fired inside, wounding three people. The Israeli military denied the claim, saying soldiers did not make a move on the shrine. The military says it gave soldiers maps marked with holy sites that are off limits.

The minister-general of the Franciscans, the Rev. Giacomo Bini, told reporters in Rome Friday that Israeli soldiers did blow open a door and fired inside the church courtyard but did not enter. ``They (Israeli soldiers) did destroy the door the same way the Palestinians destroyed a door trying to get in.''

Bini said the situation inside the church was ``very grave.'' About 60 members of the clergy, including four nuns, are inside.

``The brothers have shared their food but it is now running out, and we appeal to be allowed to leave the church to go and get supplies,'' he said. ``Our brothers are tired psychologically and physically.''

Around the city, a few people ventured cautiously into the streets as word spread that a military curfew would be lifted for two hours. People stared at their cars, flattened by tanks and left twisted like crunched soda cans along curbs. Bullets left car windows split and cracked.

Shopkeepers cleaned up damaged stores along streets full of rubble and bent-over lamp posts. Tank treads gouged stone roads that were built above old asphalt roads for Millennium celebrations.

``We have only a couple of hours to find food,'' said Souad Kasi, 55. ``We need milk and bread, but this time is not enough for bakeries to provide all the people with bread.'' She raced with her 11-year-old daughter Abir to find an open shop.

Others hurried to hospitals to claim the bodies of dead relatives and quickly bury them.

Soldiers fired into the air to signal the curfew was back in place.

Helmeted soldiers gripping rifles patrolled and crouched along the front of houses and shops, spray-painting a green ``X'' on places that had been searched.

Video released by the military showed piles of rifles it said soldiers had confiscated.

At the Star Hotel, heavily armed American policemen from the U.S. consulate, some wearing helmets and dark sunglasses and carrying M-16 rifles, evacuated foreigners from the city.

Back at the compound of the 150-year-old Evangelical Lutheran Christmas Church, Rev. Raheb said in a telephone interview that two tank shells tore up the front of a gift shop and workshop alongside the church during a 13-hour firefight Tuesday.

Raheb said that as soldiers entered the church compound, an Israeli commander apologized. ``He said, 'Sorry. We know there was no firing that took place from your church,''' Raheb said.

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