Church of Nativity filthy but not badly damaged at standoff's e

Saturday, May 11, 2002

BETHLEHEM, West Bank -- The Church of the Nativity reeked of urine, dirty dishes were piled on an altar and filthy blankets strewn across the ancient stone floor, yet the basilica marking Jesus' traditional birthplace emerged largely unscathed Friday from a 39-day standoff between Israel and Palestinian gunmen.

Thirteen militiamen who had been holed up inside were flown into European exile, and 26 were released into the Gaza Strip where they were given a raucous welcome. Seventy-three Palestinian policemen and civilians were set free.

The end of the siege paved the way for an Israeli troop pullback from Bethlehem Friday evening, effectively ending the military offensive Israel launched March 29 against Palestinian militias in the West Bank.

President Bush said the end of the Bethlehem siege was a welcome sign and "should advance the prospects for resuming a political peace process."

The day's events in Bethlehem began shortly before 7 a.m., when the first of the gunmen walked through the low-slung Gate of Humility, the main door of the 4th-century basilica. The others followed, emerging into the hazy sunlight of Manger Square. Some waved or flashed victory signs, and one dropped to the ground, kneeling in Muslim prayer. Two men were carried out on stretchers.

Foreigners held out

By midmorning, all Palestinians had left the church, but the standoff was not over. Ten foreigners, who had slipped into the church May 2 in a show of solidarity with the Palestinians, refused to come out -- demanding a lawyer and insisting on holding a news conference.

Israeli riot police later entered the compound and removed them by force, with the approval of exasperated priests. The 10, including four Americans, were detained ahead of deportation.

Journalists touring the basilica, one of Christianity's holiest shrines, saw two wooden altars in the Armenian section and a marble baptismal covered with leftover food and dirty dishes.

The stone floor was strewn with dirty blankets and mattresses, lighters, sunglasses, a toothpaste tube, a bottle of aftershave, plastic bags, cigarette butts, a comb and large cooking pots. A stove and gas canisters for cooking stood to one side of the central aisle.

Those inside the church had complained the Israelis occasionally cut the water supply and that water was scarce during the siege. There were no toilets inside the basilica and to get to facilities elsewhere required crossing an open courtyard, with the risk of Israeli sniper-fire.

The panes of several arched windows near the ceiling were broken, but there appeared to be no other damage. A 12th-century mosaic near the ceiling, which one priest had said was hit by bullets, appeared in good condition.

The small birth grotto, a few steps below the basilica, was in pristine condition. Priests said some gunmen and foreigners had initially slept there because it was the warmest spot, but agreed to leave so clergy could conduct daily services there.

One priest complained the foreigners had desecrated the church by smoking and drinking alcohol.

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