Magazine article Washington Report on Middle East Affairs

No Longer a Refuge: The Fate of the Church in Bethlehem

Magazine article Washington Report on Middle East Affairs

No Longer a Refuge: The Fate of the Church in Bethlehem

Article excerpt

MITRI RAHEB DESCRIBES in his book I Am a Palestinian Christian (Fortress, 1995) how, as a five-year old boy, he was carried by his mother to the Church of the Nativity during the shelling of Bethlehem in the 1967 Six-Day War.

"There we and many other Christian families from Bethlehem found refuge," he writes. "We all lived together in the rooms of the church for the duration of the war. This is where we felt safe and secure despite the bombardments."

On April 1, the day after Israel launched its latest and most vicious invasion of Palestinian territory, Latin Patriarch Michel Sabbah announced once again: "The Church of the Nativity is a Sanctuary. People should be welcome there."

The problem is that Israeli tanks and snipers have surrounded the church compound and Palestinian gunmen have retreated inside. Israeli army spokespersons stressed they would not fire against the church, and representatives for the Palestinian gunmen say they have laid down their arms inside. In the meantime there is a barrage of public relations claims: several dozen or several hundred gunmen? Time will tell.

"Most are women and children," said Naheida Taljieh by phone from her home two blocks away. "I almost sent my teenage sons there for safety. Thank God they're here with me."

No doubt Naheida was thinking of her nephew, the 18-year-old acolyte Johnny Taljieh who was slain by an Israeli sniper's bullet last Oct. 20.

Mitri Raheb's aged mother also opted not to seek refuge at Nativity Church. Instead she trekked up the hill to Christmas Lutheran Church, where her son is pastor. There in an upstairs apartment she was safe with Mitri, his wife Najwa, and two young daughters. No one would attack a church.

Yet Christmas Lutheran Church is not under the media spotlight, as is the Church of the Nativity. On that first Monday night, Mitri communicated by cell phone the terror he and his family felt as they cowered in the locked upper room while Israeli tanks surrounded them, firing at will. "The glass windows have all shattered," he said. "The entryway to our apartment has been hit by shells. We only pray they won't come inside."

On Wednesday, with electricity restored, Mitri was able to sneak--at great personal risk--from his apartment to an office with e-mail access. …

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