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Little Damage to Bethlehem Church

May 11, 2002

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BETHLEHEM, West Bank (AP) _ By the time the 39-day siege was finally over, the Church of the Nativity was a mess: Garbage was strewn across the floor, dirty dishes covered an altar and the smell of urine filled the sanctuary.

But aside from fire damage to a study hall, a few broken windows and a bullet hole in a statue of the Virgin Mary, the basilica marking Jesus’s traditional birthplace emerged with little permanent damage.

Israeli troops withdrew from Bethlehem on Friday, soon after 13 wanted militiamen who had been holed up inside were flown into exile. Twenty-six other gunmen were released to the Gaza Strip, and 73 Palestinian policemen and civilians were set free.

Journalists who toured the basilica afterward saw two wooden altars in the Armenian section and a marble baptismal covered with leftover food and dirty dishes.

The stone floor was strewn with a variety of detritus: dirty blankets and mattresses, cigarette lighters and butts, sunglasses, a comb, a toothpaste tube, a bottle of aftershave, plastic bags and large cooking pots. A stove and gas canisters for cooking stood to one side of the central aisle.

Those inside the church had complained the Israelis occasionally cut the water supply, and water was scarce during the siege. There are no toilets inside the basilica itself, and to get to a bathroom facilities elsewhere meant crossing an open courtyard and risking Israeli sniper fire.

The panes of several arched windows near the ceiling were broken, but there was no other visible damage. A 12th-century mosaic near the ceiling, which one priest had said was hit by bullets, appeared in good condition.

A Franciscan study hall next to the church was gutted by fire _ Israel and the Palestinians accused each other of sparking the flames _ and a statue of the Virgin Mary was hit by a bullet.

The small grotto where Christians believe Jesus was born, a few steps below the basilica, was in good condition. Priests said some gunmen and foreign protesters had initially slept there because it was the warmest spot, but agreed to leave so clergy could conduct daily services there.

One priest complained the foreigners had desecrated the church by smoking and drinking alcohol they had brought with them.

A Bethlehem Christian, 18-year-old Sandy Shaheen, cried as she looked at the interior of the basilica. ``This is the place where Jesus was born. I can’t believe this is the house of God _ just look at it,″ said Shaheen, who worships at the Church of the Nativity every Sunday.

Father Nicholas, a Franciscan priest from Mexico, denied Israeli claims that the several dozen nuns and priests who stayed in the compound during the standoff were hostages. ``We were there by choice,″ Nicholas said. Priests and nuns have said they remained to protect the site.

Father Nicholas said the gunmen kept their weapons with them at all times and that in the first days they took candelabras, icons, candles and ``anything that looked like gold.″ Some of the valuables were later returned, he said. It was unclear Friday how many were still missing.

Reporters saw a cupboard filled with food _ more than 20 bags of lentils and rice, cans of beans and cooking oil. For extended periods during the siege, the gunmen had said food was running low and those inside were subsisting on one meal a day. Some said they had resorted to making soup from lemon leaves growing in the courtyard, and some foreign activists said they had eaten grass. It was unclear whether those accounts were misleading, or whether Israel sent in more food in the last days.

Israeli bomb experts swept the church and said they found 40 explosive devices that were later disarmed.

Joyful over regaining control of the shrine, Greek and Franciscan priests conducted a service Friday, and bells pealed for several minutes.

After Israeli troops withdrew from Bethlehem Friday, hundreds of residents who had been trapped in their houses by a curfew during much of the standoff entered the church. Many lit candles near the grotto.