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Nativity Church, Bethlehem

05/09/02 12:00AM By Bill Seamans
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(Host) Commentator Bill Seamans remembers more peaceful times at the Church of the Nativity and wonders how it came to be caught up in the recent standoff.


(Seamans) One of my most memorable experiences in the Middle East was reporting the Christmas midnight mass from the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem a very special assignment for one of the Christian persuasion like myself. It seemed, at that time, that all the turmoil in the Middle East gave way to the Prince of Peace for just a few hours on Christmas Eve.

Even Bethlehem's mezuim during the day muted their calls to prayer in the mosques so as not to overwhelm the sound of the church bells. And a battalion of Israeli troops patrolled around Bethlehem to assure that the celebration would proceed safe from terrorism. Thus both Jews and Muslims helped Christians celebrate their Christmas at the traditional site of the birthplace of the baby Jesus.

Not any more. When I heard that Palestinian gunmen and civilians had taken refuge in the church I could not help but ask myself, "Why?" Why, because located just across Manger Square is Bethlehem s Grand Mosque. Why did they not take refuge in the largest muslim sanctuary in the area which was just as reachable as the Church of the Nativity?

The town of Bethlehem came under Yasser Arafat s control along with other areas of the West Bank. Since then Arafat has made a big photo-op show of attending the midnight Christmas mass. Therefore he was well aware of the propaganda value of good symbolic relations with the Church of the Nativity. Why, then, did he not order his gunmen to stay away from the Church and, if necessary, seek sanctuary in their own house of worship?

The answer obviously is Politics. Taking refuge from Israeli troops in the Church of the Nativity would, his critics claim Arafat thought, put the Israelis in a tough public relations spot if they invaded the church to get at the gunmen. The Israelis said they would not enter the church to avoid disrespecting a religious shrine and avoid a gunfight inside that would surely destroy irreplaceable historic religious objects.

In fact, some years ago, the Church's roof was leaking so badly that priceless chandeliers and mosaics were being damaged. The several Christian sects who share the church could not agree on who was responsible. The drip, drip, dripping continued until the Israelis could stand it no longer. They invaded the church armed with ladders, hammers and saws and repaired the roof no charge! It was the only Israeli invasion of foreign sovereign territory that I know of that was not criticized.

Regardless of one's religious or political perspective, it is truly a sad commentary that Yasser Arafat did not, when he well could have, prevent the invasive Palestinian violence done to the Church of the Nativity. And why hasn't the Christian world raised a very loud hue and cry?

This is Bill Seamans.

Award-winning journalist Bill Seamans is a former correspondent and bureau chief for ABC News in the Middle East.
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