Youths tell of waiting, sleeping in Jesus' grotto

Saturday, April 27, 2002

BETHLEHEM, West Bank -- During the first chilly nights Abed Abu Surour spent inside the Church of the Nativity, he huddled with 30 young men in the tiny stone grotto revered as the spot where Jesus was born.

And on his final full day at the church, the hungry 16-year-old Muslim slipped into a church garden to pick green beans, only to be chased off by Israeli army fire.

As Abu Surour and other youths recounted their three weeks inside the shrine, Israeli and Palestinian negotiators remained deadlocked on the fate of about 30 gunmen among more than 200 Palestinians still holed up inside.

After three days of negotiations at the Bethlehem Peace Center, a building next to the church, no discussions were held Friday as a Palestinian negotiator prepared to consult with Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat.

Abu Surour, a lively, talkative kid, was among nine youths to emerge from the church on Thursday. On April 2, the day the standoff began, he was heading to Bethlehem's market to meet friends when Israeli troops began battling Palestinian gunmen, forcing him to seek cover.

He followed others through the 5-foot-high doorway into the church, one of the holiest sites in Christendom. The Palestinians, almost all of them Muslims, believed the church was the safest place from Israeli fire -- even more secure than the mosque at the other end of Manger Square.

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