By Shelley Neese, The Jerusalem Connection
Four years ago, on May 10th, the thirty-nine day terrorist-takeover of the Church of the Nativity ended. The siege began when a gunbattle broke out in the Streets of Bethlehem between the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) and Palestinian terrorists. Over two-hundred Palestinians stormed the Church compound. Knowing many highly wanted terrorists were inside the Church, the IDF sealed off and surrounded the Church, preparing to wait it out.
After weeks of round the clock negotiations, the IDF and PLO Chairman Yasser Arafat finally agreed that of the seventy armed terrorists inside the Church, thirteen would be sent to Europe and twenty-six deported to Gaza. After weeks of waiting with held breath, the entire Christian world let out a sigh of relief as the terrorists were bused out of Bethlehem and IDF tanks withdrew from Manger Square. Thanks to the IDF’s watchfulness, the clergy were unharmed and the Church had no permanent damage.
The takeover of the seventeen-hundred year-old Church which marks the birth spot of Jesus is one of the most momentous terrorist acts during the last six years of violence. Considering the brazenness of the terrorists in using one of Christianity’s most hallowed sites to further their violent agenda, one would assume the enemy was easily distinguished from the ally. However, much of Christendom was divided on who to blame.
Most Evangelical Christian communities clearly identified the armed Palestinians who took over the Church as the wrongdoers. However, many Orthodox Christian clergy and leaders of the liberal Protestant churches faulted Israel for not ending the siege and allowing the terrorists to walk free. This disjointed Christian response exposed the extreme differences of Christian positions on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. It also hindered what should have been an organized Christian protest and voice of disdain for the terrorists’ violation of Christ’s birth place.
Throughout the crisis, the Church leaders who displayed the most public contempt for Israel and sympathy for the terrorists were the Franciscan order in Assisi, the Franciscan custodians in Jerusalem, and the Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem. The Franciscans in Assisi often over extend their role as they consider themselves self-elected ambassadors for peace. In trying to increase the international pressure on Israel to let the terrorists go, the Franciscans in Assisi directed a letter writing campaign to world leaders. Some letters were addressed to American and European Jewish communities, asking them to protect the Church’s besieged clergy just as heroic ministers and nuns had protected Jewish children during the holocaust. The Franciscan custodians in Jerusalem—many of whom are Arab and Palestinian—actively proposed ideas to the Israeli government for ending the crisis, all of which would have allowed the terrorists to go free. One of the recommendations was for a public mass to be held at the Church. When the congregation left the mass, the gunmen were supposed to lay down their weapons and simply follow the congregants out of the Church without being taken into custody. When Israel dismissed this idea, David Jaeger, spokesman for the Franciscan custodians, tried to take the IDF to the high court of Israel.
As one might have expected from the Palestinian Latin Patriarchate, widely known as the “Patriarch of the Muslims,” Michal Sabbah jumped at the opportunity to use the crisis to vilify the IDF. Sabbah insisted that the clergy inside the Basilica were not being held hostage. He claimed it was the Israelis, not the Palestinians, who were prolonging the crisis and forcing the clergy to suffer through difficult conditions. He tried to rally Church leaders to appeal to President Bush to force the IDF to leave Bethlehem and release the terrorists.
Unlike the open biases of the Franciscans and Latin Patriarchate, the Vatican was careful to at least feign neutrality. Although the Papacy made an effort to place equal demands on both parties to resolve the crisis, the onus was disproportionally placed on Israel. The Vatican’s public warnings to avoid harming the Church were primarily directed at Israel. Vatican diplomats knew Israel would be more sensitive to the Pope’s concerns than the deluded terrorists inside the Church. Indeed, to allay the Vatican’s concerns, the IDF made sacrifices that undermined its negotiation strategies. The IDF provided written assurance that tactical intervention was not an option and there would be no violent denouement. The IDF negotiators also agreed to allow food and water for the besieged clergy, knowing these supplies would also end up in the mouths of the terrorists.
Compared to the large role of the Vatican, American Evangelical Christians and Pentecostals were less public in their protests of the Church’s takeover. One reason for this is because the Vatican considers itself the protector of the fabric of the Church while Protestant tradition puts less emphasis on the importance of bricks and mortar. Having said this, the pro-Israel Christian community was the only group to properly assess the culpability of the Muslim terrorists and express outrage over their violation of a Christian holy place. Pat Robertson was one of the first Christian leaders to describe the crisis at the Church as a hostage situation, a term much of the world was scared to apply. Also, Malcom Hedding of the International Christian Embassy in Jerusalem said the takeover was a “premeditated offense by militant outlaws.” Gary Bauer was quoted saying: “if the church is damaged that would be regrettable, but the responsibility would lie with the Palestinian terrorists who forced their way in, not with the Israeli forces attempting to bring them to justice.”
On the opposite end of the spectrum, liberal Christian Protestant groups tried desperately to use the Bethlehem crisis to further their anti-Israel agenda. On the Presbyterian Church (USA) website, members were asked to contact their legislators in protest of the Church of the Nativity crisis which according to them was an act of Israeli aggression. The website also said that the Church siege exemplified the terrible suffering of Palestinian Christians. While true, instead of correctly placing the blame in the hands of the Muslim terrorists, the PC(USA) said the Christians’ plight was a direct result of Israeli “occupation.”
Much has happened, however, in four years. With Hamas now controlling the Palestinian government and parliament, Palestinian Christians fear for their lives. And rightfully so. According to the Hamas charter, “the land of Palestine is an Islamic Wakf consecrated for future Muslim generations.” The charter also declares that “Allah is its goal, the Prophet is its model, the Koran its constitution, and Jihad is its path.” Hamas is beginning to impose a reign of intimidation where no Christian feels safe. Those from the Orthodox community and the Christian Left who completely exonerated the Muslim terrorists during the siege of the Church of Nativity are now confronted with the true intentions of the majority of Muslim Palestinians. The Hamas government has a self-professed violent agenda to Islamitize the entire region.
The election of a Hamas led government has extracted a cautious response from anti-Israel Christian groups. Shocked by the election outcome, the same Jerusalem church leaders who for years have criticized Israel and praised Fatah are now forced into a position of begging Hamas for tolerant governance. A week after the Hamas victory, Jerusalem’s senior church leaders issued a joint statement asking Hamas leaders to show mercy and seek peace. Latin Patriarch Michal Sabbah was one of the co-signatories.
Christian leaders have reason to worry and Palestinian Christians are justified in their fear. Arabs have been desecrating Jewish and Christian holy sites long before the takeover of the Church of Nativity. In 1948, after the Arabs forced all Jews out of the Old City, Jordan desecrated Jerusalem’s 2,500-year-old Jewish cemetery and used the gravestones to build roads, walls, and latrines. In 2000, Palestinian mobs torched the Tomb of Joseph in Nablus, burning prayer books and destroying sacred relics. In March 2004, Israeli intelligence foiled a plot in which three terrorists trying to blackmail the Israeli government were going to hijack a crowded bus in Jerusalem and bring the bus to the Church of the Nativity. After the evacuation of Gaza, Palestinians trampled the remaining synagogues, dancing around them as they were set ablaze. For this hideous act, the Palestinians were excused by the international community for not being able to help themselves and Israel was universally blamed for leaving the synagogues there to tempt those hungry for vandalism.
For those who saw Israel as the perpetrator during the Bethlehem crisis and excused the Palestinian terrorists, one would hope the lessons of the last four years, and more importantly, the last few months have clarified to Christendom who is the enemy and who is the ally. Undoubtedly, the West Bank and Gaza are poisoned by terror and a crisis similar to that at the Church of the Nativity is bound to recur. Christians who refused to place appropriate blame for the Bethlehem outrage should learn their lesson so the inevitable “next time” will elicit a unified Christian response.
Shelley Neese is managing editor for The Jerusalem Connection.