May 13, 2002

BETHLEHEM - The Church of the Nativity is alive again, more so than it has been for years.

In St. Catherine's, the Catholic part of the church, choral chants joined by a tambourine resonated with the words "Salaam," peace, and "Hallelujah," God be praised.

It was the first Sunday service after a 38-day stand-off between Israelis soldiers and Palestinian fighters holed up inside the compound with civilians and clergy.

"Never do we clap our hands like this," said Munir Sansur, a worshipper. "People want to express their joy." The packed hall prayed in Latin and Arabic. There was also a sprinkling of French.

On the nearby streets, there were signs of destruction and war: posters of a Palestinian child "martyr" holding a rifle, Palestinian embroidery lying on the floor of a travel agency, its frame shattered by troops, and 12 cars that had been flattened, demolition derby-style, by tanks. "We will never forget the crimes of the occupation against the church," proclaimed a banner outside St. Catherine's.

But Bethlehem town councillor Gehane Anastas says: "If we look at who is to be blamed, we won't be healing ourselves. We have to look to the future."

Mr. Sansur and Mr. Anastas, like other Bethlehem Christians, have long-standing ties to the church. They take pride that it is part of the world's heritage and Palestinian heritage. But it is also a place of refuge and a type of community center with scouts, choirs, and charity projects.

The church traces its origins to the time of the Roman emperor Constantine. Anastas and Sansur come from old families whose histories are intertwined with that of the church.

"For me, as a Bethlehmite, it's the place where I was born spiritually," says Anastas. "I cannot imagine Bethlehem without the Nativity Church. It is also a place we go when we are tired, afraid, before exams - a place to get rid of fears and sorrows. This is the first time Nativity wasn't there to help us."

There were no Easter services. The confirmation of Sansur's nephew, Phillipe Dabdour, could not take place. But the baptisms and confirmations will go ahead now. Sansur said there is a saying among the Bethlehem Christians that "the Nativity Church is always miraculously saved."

During the 7th century, Persian invaders destroyed all of the churches in the surrounding area but spared the Nativity Church, he said.

But Samir Salman, the church's bell ringer is gone. He was shot dead by Israeli troops at the start of the siege when he ascended to ring the bells, as he had done for three decades. He was apparently unaware of the fighting outside, church personnel say.

Eight Palestinians, said to be fighters, were shot dead in the church compound. There was damage to a mosaic and to the pipes of a new organ at St. Catherine's. Rooms in the Catholic and Greek Orthodox sections were burned. But the main prayer areas are fully intact. There is a slight odor at the entrance to St. Catherine's, which offers a clue to the dire sanitary and health conditions during the siege.

As a follow up to the resolution of the church standoff, the army pulled out of Bethlehem Friday night, which put an end to the strict curfew that had confined people to their homes. According to the deal that was struck, 26 people headed to the Gaza Strip and 13 to Cyprus.

Bethlehem municipality officials says soldiers stole money and gifts given to the city from all over the world.

"Everything was stolen, all the documents, the registers, the money, 20,000 shekels [$4,000] that was in safes," said Jamal Salman, the town manager. The army responded that stealing violates its morals and values and that it will investigate the complaint it expects to receive from the municipality.

Indictments have been issued against five soldiers who allegedly stole or looted during the West Bank offensive, an army spokesman said.

In St. Catherine's, the Latin Patriarch, Michel Sabah told the worshippers: "The journalists are asking us when will the suicide operations end. What we need is to get rid of the reasons for them. We need to bring an end to the occupation. We do not need press statements, what we need are courageous actions from us Palestinians and from the Israeli side."

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