A Hornets’ Nest in Bethlehem

The unholiest wars in the Holy Land have been fought over the Holy Places – whether between rival faiths – Crusaders and Saracens, or rival factions – Western and Eastern Churches.


Bethlehem’s Church of the Nativity was built in AD 333 over the traditional birthplace of Jesus. The ten-day Israel-Palestinian standoff around the church is being actively exploited by the Vatican to enhance its standing in a church, in which the largest share was bestowed on the Eastern Orthodox community under the 1868 status quo agreement. This accord brought a measure of calm to the long-embattled Christian Holy Places.


DEBKA-Net-Weekly reports that the Israeli foreign ministry is backing up the Vatican’s maneuvers for seizing the senior position in the shrine. The pro-European foreign minister, Shimon Peres, has promised the Vatican that Israel will make no move against the church, in which 100-150 wanted Palestinian terrorists are barricaded with monks and nuns taken hostage, without sanction from Rome.


But there are many fingers in the sacred pie.


European Catholic powers, such as Italy, Ireland, Austria and France, are standing behind the Vatican’s campaign, while the UK government demands that the gunmen be allowed to leave the church under British supervision. The Sharon government has vowed not to let anyone go free or lift the military siege until the men inside give themselves up and release their hostages.


Bethlehem and its Christian shrines were handed over to the Palestinian Authority in December 1995, when Israeli troops moved out, leaving only the traditional Rachel’s Tomb in Israeli hands.


When Israeli forces re-entered Bethlehem on April 2, to purge the town of terrorists, a large group of Palestinian militiamen burst into the church by smashing the lock of a side door, in order to escape an Israeli tank force about to nail them. Inside, they found an unknown number of monks and nuns – some say as many as 80 – and are holding them hostage.


An Israeli tank force is parked outside the church in Manger Square, demanding that the armed Palestinians give themselves up. Among them are senior terror activists, including large groups of Hebron and Bethlehem Fatah-Tanzim militiamen and their officers, terror commanders who sent suicide bombers to a Jerusalem supermarket and the ultra-religious quarter, and the gunmen who plagued the Jerusalem suburb if Gilo for long months.


Inter-church intrigue took over almost as soon as the incident began.


The pro-Palestinian Latin Patriarch Michel Sabah declared that the terrorists had a right to sanctuary, but admitted they had not laid down their arms. The Orthodox clergy then rose up in arms, asserting they own primacy in the church. They stress that they speak for by far the largest Christian community in the Holy Land, and accuse the Vatican of using the crisis to alter the status quo.


The Church of the Nativity has three resident denominations – the Greek Orthodox, the Franciscan Holy Land Custodians for the Catholic Church and the Armenian Orthodox. The status quo divides the different sections of each holy place, including the Nativity, among the rival churches and communities, assigning the rights of each to carry out repairs, perform ceremonies and even which step, wall, nook and cranny each is entitled to clean.


Destroyed repeatedly by war, fire and earthquake, the present structure bears the scars of its history, having changed hands between Muslim and Christian forces more than once from Crusader times. The Ottomans bought some peace to the shrine by walling in the main entrance to prevent mounted horsemen from storming into the basilica.


The Door of Humility is so small that visitors must bend down to enter.

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