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