2002.05.25 Scripps Howard News Service:
Agonizing questions inside the Church of the Nativity
Saturday, May 25, 2002
By TERRY MATTINGLY, Scripps Howard News Service
The Gate of Humility into the Church of the Nativity is just over four feet
high and was added in 1272 A.D. to help repel raiders.
Visitors must stoop or bow in submission. Once inside, most tourists -
about 1.25 million a year, in peaceful times - quickly queue on the right
side of the fifth-century Orthodox basilica and wait to enter the Grotto of
the Nativity beneath the high altar.
I passed through the gate two years ago and headed for the altar icons. A
"You are American? You are Orthodox?" he asked, before assisting me. "We
have so few people who come here to pray."
Frankly, I was glad to have a guide in the maze. The main lesson I learned
was that the Church of the Nativity is not one building.
Nevertheless, most news about the recent Bethlehem siege described it as
one church served by 30 or more priests, monks and nuns. Sadly, the reality
is more splintered than that and recent events may have deepened the cracks.
Journalists said Palestinians in "the monastery" exchanged fire with
Israeli troops. Which monastery? There are separate Roman Catholic and
Greek monasteries and an Armenian Orthodox convent as well. "The priests"
said they were not held hostage. Which priests? Gunmen, some said, raided
food supplies and trashed monastic cells. In which cloister? It is not even
clear how the Palestinians entered "the church."
Time magazine reported that they used the Gate of Humility.
Yet it's hard to imagine several dozen al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigade leaders,
Tanzim militia, Hamas fighters and Palestinian Authority police being
allowed through the Gate of Humility with 90 weapons, including assault
rifles and enough explosives for a reported 40 booby-traps.
Newsweek and numerous other publications say they shot their way through
the main doors of the Roman Catholic Church of St. Catherine, a
19th-century sanctuary adjoining the Orthodox basilica. But other reports
said the Franciscan priests opened these doors.
Either way, how did gunmen get from the Franciscan passageways into the
ancient basilica? Why did Palestinians, as some photos claim to show - end
up sleeping on its cold stone floor, rather than in the Catholic
sanctuary's pews? Orthodox churches do not have pews.
The Orthodox patriarch of Jerusalem believes these are not trivial
questions. His words could not have been more blunt, as reporters surveyed
the Greek monastery after the siege.
"All the media concentrated on the Franciscan quarter, where little damage
was done," said Patriarch Irineos I, according to a Washington Times
report. "Why? The Franciscans actually let the gunmen in then guided the
gunmen to our rooms. ... The Franciscans then blocked their own rooms'
doors with iron bars."
The New York Times and other publications reported that the most militant
Palestinians appear to have lived, fought and died in the quarters of the
Orthodox monks. Greek clerics feared Muslims would even attempt to claim
these bloody sites as shrines. At one point, gunmen tried to bury one of
their dead in the Greek monastery's garden.
Franciscan priests did report that gunmen tore up Bibles for toilet paper.
The organ in their church was damaged, as was a mosaic. Meanwhile,
Palestinian and Israeli leaders traded accusations about who caused fires
in the monasteries. The militants stole candelabra, icons and other golden
objects, but left them behind with their weapons. Everyone leaving the
basilica passed through a metal detector.
A Vatican envoy quickly ruled that St. Catherine's had not been defiled.
The first Mass after the siege was celebratory, complete with the sound of
a tambourine. Reporters noted that this church's main gate had been
repaired, since it appeared that gunmen shot off the lock.
Next door, Patriarch Irineos led solemn reconsecration rites, before the
first Divine Liturgy in his violated sanctuary. One altar had been used a
common table, the baptismal font as a washtub and parts of the nave as
latrines. The Grotto of the Nativity was used as a morgue.
And Eastern Orthodox believers were unable to celebrate Holy Week and their
Easter on May 5.
Was this another tragic first in the history of one of Christendom's oldest
churches? The siege raised agonizing questions inside the Church of the
Nativity, as well as outside of its ancient walls.The New York Times and other publications reported that the most militant Palestinians appear to have lived, fought and died in the quarters of the Orthodox monks.The Franciscans actually let the gunmen in then guided the gunmen to our rooms...The Franciscians then blocked their own rooms' doors with iron bars.