For Greek Orthodox, an uneasy Easter

Negotiations to end the month-long standoff at the church of the Nativity here appeared close to fruition yesterday, as Palestinian and Israeli officials discussed the fate of gunmen trapped inside the holy site.

But that offered little consolation to Hani Kanawati, a diminutive 84-year-old Bethlehemite dressed in widow's weeds, as she emerged from a church in the nearby town of Beit Jala after celebrating Easter mass on Saturday morning.

"This is the first time in all my life that I have taken Holy Communion here," she said. "All my lifetime I have received it in the Church of the Nativity, near where I live."

That option was not open to her this Easter (which in the Orthodox calendar fell a month after the Western date). The 4th-century basilica, marking the spot where Jesus is believed to have been born, is occupied by around 120 Palestinians, including a score of gunmen wanted by Israel, and the building is ringed by Israeli soldiers.

"I am very sad at what is happening there" she said from beneath the white lace veil covering her head, as the bass chant of a male choir wafted from the open doors of the church. "It is the house of the Lord."

But after fasting for the 45-day Lenten period, Mrs. Kanawati insisted on going to Easter mass. So she and her two granddaughters fashioned a white flag from a piece of cloth and waved it from the window of their car as they defied the Israeli military curfew and drove to the Virgin Mary Church in Beit Jala.

Others found different ways of making it to church, despite the curfew. Dr. Peter Qumri, a doctor at Bethlehem hospital, brought his wife and sister in an ambulance. Another family hitched a ride in a car belonging to Al Jazeera, the Arabic TV station.

Zuheir Abu Rudeineh, a brother of one of Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat's top aides, found a circuitous route along hillside tracks and byways. "Like a thief I come to the church," he complained.

Dr. Qumri, standing on the steps beside the white stone church in the early morning sun, was taking a rare opportunity to speak to his wife and sister.

"I have seen them only twice since the Israelis came a month ago," he said. "I live at the hospital."

Bethlehem has been under a blanket curfew since the Israeli army occupied the town at the beginning of April, and residents are allowed out for just a few hours every three or four days. The rest of the time the streets are shuttered and dead, the alleyways littered with uncollected garbage, and cars wrecked during the Israeli assault.

"We miss our friends, we miss our work, we miss our freedom," said Qumri's wife, Mary. "And we don't even hear the bells ringing at the Church of the Nativity. They used to chime in the morning, at noon and in the evening. We miss them."

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