Cradle of Christianity held hostage in Middle East Conflict

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Orthodoc:
Ecumenical News International
Daily News Service / 02 December 2002
Cradle of Christianity a hostage in the Middle East conflict

By Ross Dunn

Bethlehem, 2 December (ENI)--The cradle of Christianity has again
become a hostage of the Middle East conflict after Israeli troops
seized control of the West Bank city of Bethlehem in response to
the suicide bombing that killed 11 people on 21 November.

The bomber was identified as a 23-year-old Palestinian from
Bethlehem, and his father declared before television cameras that
he was proud of his what his son had done.

Several Israeli armoured personnel carriers bristling with
machine guns stand guard near the Church of the Nativity, which
marks the spot where tradition holds that Jesus was born. Troops
are on the lookout for Palestinian militants who might attempt to
seek sanctuary inside the shrine.

Through the tiny church doorway appears a group of bearded,
cloaked clerics. The Rev. Karnardos, the Greek Orthodox superior
of the Church of the Nativity, says the sanctuary has been closed
because of fears of a repeat of events that beleaguered the holy
place earlier this year.

Back in April, a group of armed Palestinians occupied the church
triggering a long siege that finally ended with the fugitives
agreeing to exile in the Gaza Strip and abroad.

"From this morning the church has closed, because I saw the
tanks," Karnardos tells ENI.

He urges Israelis and Palestinians to end their conflict and to
restart the search for a lasting peace.

"The King of Peace, Jesus, was born here. But there has been no
peace in this land from the time of King David, through the time
Jesus lived, until now."

He recalls that in the past two years few tourists have been able
to visit Bethlehem because of the violent clashes. Karnardos says
he prays the fighting might stop to enable to pilgrims to see
Bethlehem at Christmas.

"The big problem is the lack of security. That is why people are
not coming to see the holy place," he says.

On the other side of the square, Omar Habib, a 17 year-old
Palestinian boy, has watched events unfold. He spent 25 days in
the Church of the Nativity during the stand-off earlier this
year.

Omar says he's not afraid to die, for that would make him a
martyr and, he says, it would bring blessings from heaven. "What
will they [the soldiers] do, they will kill me?," he asks. "If
they kill me, God will take me."

He says if the Israelis offer true peace, they will find a
willing partner in the Palestinians, but military force will
never be the solution. "If they want peace, okay, there is no
problem," he says. "But if they want to kill me, and bring their
guns, there is a problem."

Military Jeeps patrol the city's Manger Square in front of the
church, and soldiers warn stone-throwing boys to move back. The
boys scuttle back to the cobble-stoned streets leading from the
square, some of them yanked by older brothers ordering them home.

Apart from these boys, the streets are deserted after the
Israeli-enforced curfew.

Israeli troops pulled out of Bethlehem in August under an
understanding with the Palestinian Authority that the area would
not be used as a base from which to launch attacks.

The pull-back was to serve as a model for a phased withdrawal
from all Palestinian self-governed areas in the West Bank that
Israeli forces had re-occupied in June, following an earlier
suicide bombing campaign.

Ra'anan Gissin, a spokesperson for Israeli Prime Minister Ariel
Sharon, accuses the Palestinian Authority of actively encouraging
terrorism. He says in light of the continuing Palestinian
attacks, it seems futile to bring about a limited truce and to
withdraw from some areas.

But Doron Spielman, an Israeli army spokesperson who went in with
the troops, claims that Bethlehem could actually benefit from the
military operation, arguing that the main aim of the army is to
root out what he calls the Palestinian terrorist infrastructure.

At the same time, he stresses there is another objective that
should be welcomed by the international community. "The idea is
to have a completely safe atmosphere by Christmas so that
tourists can come without fear of a terrorist attack."
* * *
(c) Ecumenical News International

JoeS:
My fear is that the Christian presence in these Holy sites will become less and less over the years and what will become of them espcecially in these Islamic areas?  Will they become monuments or will they be raised for the building of other uses?  Remember these sites are only valuable to us Christians.  They are NOT important to the Jews or Muslims. Our presense is important there in order to preserve their importance to our heritage.  Is there any plans for the future to preservd these places for generations to come?
JoeS  :-";"xx

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