Book Reviews Subscribe Faith-filled Family Links for Learners Ask a Franciscan Editorial Entertainment Watch Saints for Our Lives Contents


The Bethlehem Siege: An Insider's Account

By Amjad Sabarra, O.F.M., as told to Peter Vasko, O.F.M.

The Franciscan pastor of the Basilica of the Nativity explains what happened last spring when friars, nuns and Orthodox monks were trapped in the basilica compound with 208 Palestinians.

Q U I C K S C A N

Buildings Nearby
Siege Unfolds
Dealing With the Israeli Military and Palestinians
A Strange Kind of Normalcy
Bethlehem's Christian Minority
The Siege's Aftermath
Franciscans Have Deep Roots in Holy Land
Minister General Giacomo Bini, O.F.M., April 2, 2002,letter to President George W. Bush
Minister General Giacomo Bini, O.F.M., message at an April 5, 2002, press conference
Nidal Abud Rabbo, a 21-year-old Muslim who was in the basilica during most of the siege
Pope John Paul II, address before praying the Regina Caeli
on April 7, 2002

Pope John Paul II, address before praying Regina Caeli
on April 21, 2002

Pope John Paul II, address before praying Regina Caeli
on May 12, 2002

Giovanni Battistelli, O.F.M., head of the Franciscan Custody
of the Holy Land


The Bethlehem Siege

Photo by
Steven Allan

I [Amjad Sabarra] am a Palestinian from Jerusalem’s Old City and a member of the Franciscan Custody of the Holy Land. Ordained to the priesthood in June 1992, I serve as the Roman Catholic pastor of the world’s oldest parish: Bethlehem’s Basilica of the Nativity of Our Lord.

Thirty other friars, four Catholic nuns, nine Greek Orthodox monks, five Armenian monks and I were caught by surprise last spring during the 39-day siege of the basilica and its adjoining buildings.

On the morning of April 2, 2002, 10 armed Palestinian men wandered into the basilica. Father Ibrahim Faltas, O.F.M., and I approached them and explained that we do not allow arms in the basilica and that they would have to leave. They did so quietly and politely. We then bolted the front door of the church.

Around 3 p.m. we heard a lot of gunfire, and yelling in and near the basilica. We quickly entered the church to find several hundred Palestinians running into the nave of the basilica with several dozen men carrying guns and semi-automatics. Apparently, they had broken the front door of the church.

There was absolutely no way that we could have stopped them or even tried to persuade them to leave. Israeli soldiers were shooting outside, and the Palestinians were inside. We had no choice but to give them sanctuary and protection.

Two hundred and eight Palestinians entered: police and security officers, Hamas members and civilians—about one third from each group.

Buildings Nearby

The Basilica of the Nativity is surrounded by several buildings, including our Franciscan friary/convent, St. Catherine Church (a parish church for Roman Catholics), the Casa Nova (pilgrim hospice) and monasteries for monks from the Greek Orthodox and Armenian Orthodox Churches. The 257 people under siege were in several of these buildings.

The Franciscan part of this compound includes a school for our young friars studying philosophy, our parish offices and center, plus a high school run by the Franciscans.

Besides being the pastor of St. Catherine Church, with its youth ministry, social ministry and school, I lead the Franciscans ministering to pilgrims in the Basilica of the Nativity of Our Lord.

Siege Unfolds

On April 4, Israeli soldiers cut off the electricity to the basilica and to the Franciscan friary, plus the Greek Orthodox and the Armenian monasteries. Luckily, we had a backup generator, which for a short time gave the friars electricity. When the pumps failed two days later, we used candles in the church and the friary in the evenings.

Our phone lines were first cut off on April 6. For two weeks we conserved our cell phones but, when those batteries were exhausted, we had no communication for a few days. Then a Greek Orthodox monk discovered a still-functioning electrical line in their monastery, enabling us to recharge our cell-phone batteries.

On April 8, the Israeli military shot firebombs into our parish offices, causing massive destruction. At the end of the first week, we sent five older friars to Jerusalem; the Greek Orthodox did the same for five elderly monks while the Armenians sent two for better medical care.

On April 10, water for the entire compound was shut off. Fortunately, we have a well within the friary and were able to provide water to the Palestinians inside as well as to the Greek Orthodox and Armenian monks.

On April 19, the Israelis permanently severed the telephone lines.

On May 2, 11 foreign relief workers from Denmark, Switzerland and the United States courageously ran into the basilica, risking their lives to bring us food and supplies.

On May 10, the siege of the Basilica of the Nativity ended.

We provided those confined to the basilica with makeshift mattresses, blankets and pillows, as well as food and water. We were very blessed by having a Franciscan nun who is also a nurse. She provided much-needed medical assistance to the wounded. When the Palestinians entered, they had seven wounded; during the siege, another 17 were wounded. Eight Palestinians were killed in skirmishes outside the basilica but within the larger area under siege.

Most of the friars were in our house. The Palestinians could have broken in there but did not; they did look for food in the Casa Nova, our hospice for pilgrims.

Dealing With the Israeli Military and Palestinians

We were very unsure what was going to happen. We did not know how badly the Israeli forces wanted the Palestinians who were inside. During the second week of the siege and after hearing news reports about the pressure put on the Israeli government by many governments and organizations, we felt that the Israelis would honor and respect the sanctity of one of the holiest sites of Christendom.

Never did we consider ourselves as hostages to the Palestinians in the basilica. This holy compound is where we live out our daily lives as religious. There was absolutely no force or coercion toward us on the part of the Palestinians inside the church. We had complete freedom to move about, and the Palestinians were very thankful for the basic humanitarian supplies we provided.

At one point, an Armenian Orthodox monk held up a sign that said, “Help me.” The man has a diabetic condition and desperately needed insulin. The Israeli papers portrayed the monk as trying to escape, as if he were being held hostage. He simply wanted to get the needed insulin, and in fact the Israeli military provided him with it.

A Strange Kind of Normalcy

For the most part, the friars carried on with their normal routine during the siege. But because there was so much noise during the night because of shootings, flares and tank movement, we slept in during the morning hours and had community Mass and liturgy in the afternoon. Needless to say, our food was being rationed and classes for the student friars were cancelled.

The Israeli soldiers bombed some of our parish offices, destroying several rooms in the Greek Orthodox section and damaging part of the façade of the Casa Nova, our hospice for pilgrims. The statue of the Virgin Mary above our friary courtyard was damaged by rifle fire, as were some sixth-century mosaics in the Armenian Orthodox section of the basilica.

Bethlehem's Christian Minority

Bethlehem proper has a population of 28,000, roughly 18,000 Muslims and 10,000 Christians, including 5,000 Roman Catholics. Another 150,000 people live in refugee camps outside Bethlehem. About 35 years ago, 80 percent of Bethlehem’s residents were Christian; now Christians are 5.6 percent of the 178,000 residents.

Most of Bethlehem’s Christian Palestinians make their living by working in the hospitality industry; approximately 70 percent of them were working before the second intifada began in September 2000. Because of the political turmoil, hotels are now closed, travel agencies have closed and many stores selling local products, such as handmade olive-wood manger sets, local jewelry and other olive-wood artifacts, have closed their doors due to the lack of pilgrims and tourists. Hence, income has disappeared.

Families are either emigrating or seeking help from international aid organizations.

The Siege's Aftermath

In many ways, this whole experience demonstrates how fragile peace can be here in the Holy Land. Peace can come only when there is security for both sides, and I would encourage all parties to continue to dialogue, to continue with negotiations—no matter how dismal that may seem. Are we not all brothers and sisters, mothers and fathers, all creatures of God, all trying to live our lives in peace?

No one can really win this “war.” There will never be any winners in this conflict—only losers. Violence begets violence, and whoever lives by the sword will die by the sword. 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.

I think that, if another siege happened, we would act in the very same way that we did. We did what Christians are supposed to do—to love. These people could have been Israelis and we would have embraced them and sheltered them just as we did for the Palestinians.

Father Giacomo Bini, O.F.M., the minister general of the worldwide Franciscan Order, stated during the early part of the siege that our friars are bound by charity and love. Just as we protected hundreds of Jews in our friaries throughout Europe from the insidious Nazi regime, so we become a sanctuary and shield for all those who are in need.

The fact that we willingly and freely remained at our posts, at our sanctuary, with the exception of several infirm friars, simply reflects our commitment as the faithful custodians of the Holy Places.

In another sense, our Franciscan vocation calls us to love, to pardon, to give hope, to have faith and to exult in God. This is what our founder, St. Francis of Assisi, asked his friars to do. We are simply his poor instruments trying to effect that change.


Father Peter Vasko, O.F.M., lives and works in Jerusalem as a member of the Franciscan Custody of the Holy Land. He is also president of the Franciscan Foundation for the Holy Land (www.ffhl.org), which helps Palestinian Christians further their education, find jobs and construct housing, enabling them to remain in the land of their birth.

 


Franciscans Have Deep Roots in Holy Land

Already during the lifetime of Francis of Assisi (1182-1226), the friars were working in the Holy Land. The Province of Syria was established in 1217, and two years later Francis himself visited Egypt and perhaps the Holy Land.

The Crusader period ended when Christian soldiers were defeated in 1291. Forty-two years later King Roberto and Queen Sancha of Naples reached an agreement with the Sultan of Cairo to give the Latin-rite clergy the deed to the Cenacle Room and allow them to serve once again at the Holy Sepulcher, and the Tomb of Mary (all in Jerusalem) and at the Basilica of the Nativity of Our Lord (Bethlehem). This renewed agreements that were made in 1229 and 1241. In all these places, since 1333 they have shared with representatives of Orthodox Churches a ministry to pilgrims.

The Friars Minor were officially designated as representatives of the Latin (Western) Church; this was confirmed by two documents from Pope Clement VI on November 21, 1342. The present Custody of the Holy Land began in that year.

The friars share the pastoral care of the Holy Sepulcher and the Basilica of the Nativity with the Greek Orthodox and Armenian Orthodox Churches. Other Orthodox Churches have rights at the Holy Sepulcher. Now only the Greek, Armenian and Ethiopian Orthodox Churches have rights at the Tomb of Mary.

The Franciscan Custody of the Holy Land numbers 332 friars (including some born in the region). They work in Rhodes, Cyprus, Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, Egypt, Israel and the Occupied Territories, with additional houses in Italy, Spain, Argentina and the United States.

Many friars from 44 provinces in 32 countries, while retaining membership in their original provinces, assist the members of the Holy Land Custody. Most of this work is done in Israel and the Occupied Territories where the friars serve at 16 shrines, staff eight parishes, run eight schools, administer two orphanages, serve as chaplains to various groups and staff four hospices for pilgrims.

In Jerusalem the friars run a school for graduate-level studies in Scripture and archaeology; they also run Jerusalem’s Christian Information Center, its Franciscan Printing Press, Casa Nova Hospice and an orphanage for girls and one for boys.

 


Minister General Giacomo Bini, O.F.M., April 2, 2002,
letter to President George W. Bush

As followers of St. Francis, we commit ourselves to work with the men and women of the Holy Land to achieve a lasting and true peace based on real justice and forgiveness. We are convinced that the only way to resolve this conflict is through negotiation, however long and painful this process may be. We urge you to insist on dialogue as the only legitimate way forward.

Minister General Giacomo Bini, O.F.M., message at an April 5, 2002, press conference

We Franciscan friars cannot leave the Holy Places, even if we have to take risks in order to avoid a tragic massacre in Bethlehem, in the Church of the Nativity....We are remaining in our position between two camps [Palestinians and Israelis], trying to create dialogue with everybody, in order to avoid a tragic end. This is happening in Bethlehem, in the same spot where Jesus ‘our Peace’ was born, within the Basilica of the Nativity, a monument of faith and devotion for so many Christians since the very early centuries of Christianity....During eight centuries the friars have remained in these places as messengers of love of the dead and risen Christ, as witnesses to reconciliation. They have always defended jealously the Holy Places, which are signs and symbols of faith and devotion, and which are the common heritage of humanity.

Nidal Abud Rabbo, a 21-year-old Muslim who was in the basilica during most of the siege. He was able to leave on April 30.

The Church of the Nativity means so much more to me now. This place saved me from Israeli bullets. The least I can do is to go say ‘thank you’ to God and to the priests. They were always helping us, trying to calm us down and telling us not to worry.


 


Pope John Paul II, address before praying the Regina Caeli
on April 7, 2002

How is it possible to forget that, following Abraham’s example, Israelis and Palestinians believe in the one God? To him, whom Jesus revealed as the merciful Father, the common prayer of Christians is raised, who repeat with St. Francis of Assisi, ‘Lord, make me an instrument of your peace.’ At this time, my thoughts go especially to the Franciscan, Greek Orthodox and Armenian Orthodox communities who are passing through difficult moments in the Basilica of the Nativity. I assure everyone of my constant prayer.

Pope John Paul II, address before praying Regina Caeli
on April 21, 2002

Our prayer continues with great insistence for the situation in the Holy Land, about which unfortunately we continually receive worrisome news and images of destruction. They are images that are more powerful than any appeal and oblige everyone to leave nothing untried at every level so that the land, blessed by God, may be rescued as soon as possible from the spiral of hatred and violence.

Pope John Paul II, address before praying Regina Caeli
on May 12, 2002

We have all heard with great relief that the Basilica of the Nativity in Bethlehem has been restored to God and to the faithful. I cordially thank all who helped to give back to the holy place its true religious identity. I send a particular greeting to the communities of the Franciscans, Greeks and Armenian Orthodox who with considerable sacrifices remained as faithful custodians of the shrine. To the people of Bethlehem and the surrounding region goes my heartfelt encouragement to resume their journey with faith and hope in God, who in their land became close to man.

Giovanni Battistelli, O.F.M., head of the Franciscan Custody
of the Holy Land

All men, women and children in this country, be they Palestinians or Israelis, have suffered the consequences of mistrust and hate. It is the duty of the ‘Sons of St. Francis’ in the Holy Land to be mediators of peace by showing compassion and love to each of them.

 


. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

Ask a Franciscan  | The Bible: Light to My Path  | Book Reviews  | Entertainment Watch
Editorial  | Editor’s Message  | Faith-filled Family  | Links for Learners
Saints for Our Lives  | Web Catholic  | Back Issues


Return to AmericanCatholic.org

Paid Advertisement
Ads contrary to Catholic teachings should be reported to our webmaster. Include ad link.

An AmericanCatholic.org Web Site from the Franciscans and
Franciscan Media     ©1996-2014 Copyright



 Find 
 FIND