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By Lynn and Bob Gillen

Links for Learners | August 2002

"The Bethlehem Siege: An Insider's Account"


Finding Curriculum Connections
Understanding Basic Terms
Bethlehem's Beleaguered History
The Siege as an Opportunity for Ministry
Research Resources

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Finding Curriculum Connections for High School Teachers and Students

This month’s Links for Learners will support high school curriculum in:

• World history—Middle East events; history of the Holy Land
• Christian lifestyles—hospitality, service and love

Understanding Basic Terms in This Month’s Article

Look for these key words and terms as you read the article.  Definitions or explanations can be researched from the article itself, or from the resource materials cited throughout the Link for Learners. 




Holy Land


Franciscan Custody of the Holy Land



Orthodox monks

Ministry of hospitality


Bethlehem siege



Bethlehem's Beleaguered History

The siege at the Basilica of the Nativity in Bethlehem reflected conditions that have prevailed in the Middle East city for centuries. Situated in an area that is presently under the Palestinian Authority, but largely controlled by the Israeli military, the basilica and its complex of churches, shrines and monasteries have been fought over almost since Jesus was born there 2,000 years ago.

Just a glance at a picture of the basilica conveys its fortress-like construction, a testament to its need for defense against invaders. A detailed history of the basilica reveals ongoing conflict. The present structure dates largely to the time of the Emperor Justinian (527-565). Justinian rebuilt the basilica after the Samaritan revolt of 529 badly damaged the original building. Throughout the 10th century the Crusaders controlled Bethlehem and the entire Jerusalem area. For generations various Christian groups argued over who should have custody of the shrines and churches at the nativity site. In 1852, the Turkish Sultan Abdul Majid settled the issue with a written declaration called the "Status Quo," declaring that the Holy Places would be maintained by three Christian rites: Greek Orthodox, Armenian and Latin Catholic.

When we hear the word "Bethlehem" we conjure up Christmas card images of a star shining down on a bucolic scene. Mary and Joseph nurture the newly born Jesus while quiet animals and adoring shepherds look on. With this image no doubt in mind, journalists who viewed the basilica immediately after the siege this spring labeled the conditions at the church a "desecration."

Cathleen Falsani, religion writer for the Chicago Sun-Times, offers a different perspective on the "desecration" in a recent article. Several hundred people lived in the church for over a month, she reminds us. Water and food were scarce. Electricity was cut off. Sanitary facilities were shut down. Wounds could not be cared for properly. The dead could not be buried.

Falsani argues that these conditions were not really very different from those at the time of Jesus' birth: a smelly stable full of animals; a cold night; an unwed teen mother giving birth in a poor, arid land, far from family and friends. Indeed, Falsani believes Jesus would be more offended by the squabbling among Christian rites over his birthplace than he would over the conditions in the siege situation.

Falsani's point is that the reality of our faith often lacks polish. It can be gritty, uncomfortable, often without conveniences.


The Siege As an Opportunity for Ministry

Churches and Church groups have offered sanctuary throughout much of history. In the 1980s, there was a "sanctuary movement" growing out of political oppression—and some Church workers' response to it—in Central America. .

In the trying conditions during the Bethlehem siege, Christian hospitality shone through. It's no surprise that the Franciscan friars and others ministered to the Palestinians during the siege. They could not do otherwise and call themselves Christian. One report written after the siege ended stated that, as food became scarce, the friars in fact disobeyed Israeli directives not to feed the Palestinians who had taken refuge there. For the friars, and indeed for all Christians, hospitality is an imperative.

The Franciscan friars and other religious who maintain custody of the holy places engage in a ministry of hospitality to pilgrims. Their function might be loosely compared to parish volunteers who care for the church and the altar, or to teen ministers of hospitality who greet and direct churchgoers every Sunday. On a secular level it may compare to the volunteers who act as museum docents or care for historic sites and national parks. Other Franciscans maintain the Holy Land Foundation to help Christian Palestinians with education, jobs and housing.

Our gospel calls on us to extend loving service to all, regardless of circumstances. Even military conflict does not excuse us from ministry. It tests our faith and our strength, certainly. Armed refugees filled the Bethlehem church. Outside, snipers were a constant reminder of the threat of military intervention. The entire infrastructure was pulled out from under the religious caretakers: no electricity, disrupted phone communications, little food and water, no sanitary facilities. Yet through it all, the Christians in the besieged basilica met the demands of Christian service.

Disruptive events occur all too often, don't they? We cannot forget the tragic results of the terror attacks of September 11, 2001. Natural disasters such as devastating hurricanes and tornadoes, widespread floods, raging wildfires, shocking earthquakes turn our lives upside down. Yet we have so many examples of heroic love and generous hospitality in all these events. During the recent wildfires in Arizona, for example, local hotels offered free accommodations for those evacuated from their homes.

Our national news reports almost daily about layoffs as companies like Enron and Worldcom face bankruptcy. Your own parents may be dealing with loss of work or income because of company failures. Friends' families may be suffering, even moving away to find work elsewhere.

How would you react if the infrastructure of your own life were disrupted? Or how have you reacted when your own life turned upside down? Can you identify circumstances where you can, or did, extend hospitality to someone in need? Examples might include "breaking the rules" to offer a welcoming hand to someone outside your crowd at school, or remaining kind to two feuding friends or classmates. Perhaps you can find ways to be more supportive of your parents as they struggle with family finances and demanding jobs. Service organizations in your neighborhood and parish always need volunteers.

In the days when "snail mail" was the only means of correspondence, teens adopted far-off pen pals with whom they exchanged letters. In our day of e-mail and instant messaging, can you find a teen pen-pal somewhere who needs your caring attention? Through your school or parish, you could link with a peer group elsewhere—maybe teens in the Middle East, or on an isolated Indian reservation, or simply from a different neighborhood in your own city.

For inspiration and strength, read the gospel story of the Good Samaritan. This is hospitality at its best. A stranger comes upon a man beaten and robbed by bandits. He cleans him up, then pays for him to stay at an inn until he is well enough to continue traveling.


Research Resources

Try accessing some of these Internet sources for further general reference.  Be aware, however, that some of these sites may charge for downloading articles contained within the site’s archives.

United States Conference of Catholic Bishops

The New American Bible

Documents of Vatican II 

The Vatican

The New York Times

The Los Angeles Times

The Chicago Tribune

The Washington Post

The Miami Herald

The Associated Press

Time Magazine



ABC News

Pathfinder—Access site to a number of online news publications

People magazine

The History Channel

The Close Up Foundation Washington, D.C.-based organization

Channel One —online resource for the school channel

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