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Contact: Christopher Heffron
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CHeffron@franciscanmedia.org

July 15, 2002  479 Words

Franciscan Priest, Present at the Siege of Bethlehem, Recounts Story

CINCINNATI—On the afternoon of April 2, 2002, a small group of Palestinian men, armed with guns and semi-automatic rifles, entered Bethlehem’s Basilica of the Nativity of Our Lord, the world’s oldest parish. Thirty-one Franciscan friars, four Catholic nuns, nine Greek Orthodox monks, five Armenian monks and 208 Palestinians were trapped in the basilica and the surrounding buildings, amid Israeli gunfire. For 39 harrowing days, the world watched as events surrounding the siege unfolded.

One of the priests caught up in the siege, Amjad Sabarra, O.F.M., offers a firsthand account of the experience inside the basilica, of which he is the Roman Catholic pastor. Sabarra tells his story to Peter Vasko, O.F.M., for the August cover story of St. Anthony Messenger, entitled “The Bethlehem Siege: An Insider’s Account.” After July 26, the article will be posted at: AmericanCatholic.org.

When the Palestinians entered the basilica, they had seven wounded. During the siege, an additional 17 were injured. Luckily, one of the Franciscan nuns in the church was a nurse and offered medical assistance. In the meantime, makeshift mattresses, blankets, as well as a limited supply of food and water, were given to those confined. Despite their ingenuity, the experience remained a terrifying ordeal.

On April 4, Israeli soldiers cut off the electricity to the basilica. Phone lines were cut on April 6. Two days later, Israeli military shot firebombs into the parish offices before they shut off the water on April 10. Nine days later, the phone lines were permanently severed. On May 2, foreign relief workers from Denmark, Switzerland and the United States courageously ran into the basilica bearing food and supplies. And on May 10, the siege finally ended.

Father Sabarra is quick to point out that those in the basilica were never held hostage. “There was absolutely no force or coercion toward us on the part of the Palestinians inside the church,” he says. “We had complete freedom to move about, and the Palestinians were very thankful for the basic humanitarian supplies we provided.”

Misconceptions added to the intensity of the siege. At one point, an Armenian monk, in dire need of insulin for a diabetic condition, held up a sign that read “Help me.” Israeli papers painted the monk as a hostage trying to escape. The problem was solved when the Israeli military provided him with the proper medication.

In the aftermath of the siege, Father Sabarra still believes that peace is possible. He is also philosophical about the incident. “Perhaps this standoff took place where it did, at the birthplace of Jesus Christ, as a sign of divine protection for all concerned. Perhaps it saved us from a greater disaster.”

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