Priest overseeing Church of the Nativity recalls days of siege

Wednesday, May 15, 2002

BETHLEHEM, West Bank -- Praying every day, Father Ibrahim Faltas shepherded an unusual flock of 200 people, most of them Muslims and many of them armed, through a 39-day siege of the Church of the Nativity, warding off hunger and tension while dodging gunfire from Israeli troops outside and Palestinians inside.

Faltas, a 38-year-old Franciscan, is in charge of the 4th-century shrine marking the traditional birthplace of Jesus, the focus of Bethlehem's once-thriving tourist trade and of Christmas celebrations, both stifled by 20 months of Mideast violence.

On April 2, the church became the focus of a tense standoff when dozens of Palestinians, several of them militiamen wanted by Israel, fled inside ahead of invading Israeli forces. Israeli troops surrounded the church and demanded the gunmen surrender, but they refused.

The siege finally ended Friday with a deal worked out following intervention by the Vatican, the European Union and United States.

Faltas led two morning Masses on Sunday, when nearly 1,000 people flocked to Greek Orthodox and Roman Catholic services for the first time since the standoff.

Candles burned at the entrance to Jesus' birth grotto, and visitors knelt and kissed the star meant to mark the spot where Christ was born.

Volunteers had spent Saturday furiously cleaning, and the church smelled pleasantly of incense as worshippers streamed in. When the ordeal ended Friday, the place had reeked of urine and was filled with garbage, dirty dishes and cigarette butts.

During the standoff, Faltas emerged once from the basilica to conduct Sunday services at a nearby church and then returned, saying that was his way of refuting charges that the armed Palestinians were holding about 60 clerics hostage.

Emotional ups and downs

But it was anything but pleasant inside the besieged shrine, Faltas said in an interview with The Associated Press. "Sometimes we had hope that the standoff would end in hours, but suddenly everything would collapse and we would be depressed," he said.

Sometimes the dangers were concrete. One day he got up in the morning and opened the window in his room, making some noise, he said. "Israeli soldiers had taken positions under my window and they opened fire," he said. "The bullets passed very near to me."

Faltas, a black-haired, bespectacled priest born near Alexandria, Egypt and educated in Cairo, rose to a role he had not imagined. "I had never found myself in a crisis before," he said.

"and I decided to take responsibility, cooperating with all the people around me to end it peacefully."

When the gunmen left, he said, "their last words to all the priests and monks were, 'Thanks, father, and we are sorry for everything that has happened."'

Looking back, Faltas was able to point to a positive aspect of the tense standoff. The ancient church is divided into fiefdoms ruled by often competing Christian denominations. Disputes over schedules and sites have turned violent in the past. For now, at least, that is all over.

"We were all living together wonderfully," he said. "We became brothers united in this crisis," he said.

Now, Faltas has higher hopes. "I hope there will be peace between the two peoples, Palestinians and Israelis," he said.

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