A Christian-Muslim divide closes

The Church of the Nativity siege solidifies Palestinian identity and unifies opposition to Israel.

The food in the besieged Church of the Nativity is running out. The priests, nuns, monks, and friars trapped between Israeli soldiers stationed in Manger Square and some 200 Palestinians gunmen hiding inside the church have almost gone through their stocks of beans and spaghetti – and are reportedly rationing pretzels and drinking well water.

Unless diffused, warn observers, the situation at the church – believed to be Christ Jesus' birthplace – could flare up dangerously.

This week, Israeli tanks are pulling out of the occupied West Bank towns and villages, save for two flashpoints – Ramallah, where Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat remains holed up, and here, Bethlehem.

No one, perhaps, is more infuriated by the recent events at the church than the small group of Palestinian Christians living in Bethlehem. For many of them, the standoff at the church is becoming a defining moment in terms of their Palestinian identity.

Once a substantial minority, accounting for 20 percent of the Palestinian population, the number of Christian Palestinians in the Holy Land has been steadily declining since 1948, when Israel gained independence. Today, Christians make up a mere 2 percent of the Palestinian population in the region, with most living either in Jerusalem or Bethlehem.

"Before, our identity as a Christian minority within the Palestinian community was threatened – so we held onto it tight. Today, what is being threatened is our national identity as Palestinians, and that is the important struggle," says Nuha Khoury, a Christian Palestinian professor at Bethlehem University.

"Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon never heard of divide and rule," she says sarcastically. "He started with an assault on Al Aqsa," she explains, referring to Sharon's trip in September 2001 to the holy Muslim site in Jerusalem which sparked the current intifada. "And now he is ending with the Church of the Nativity. Nothing is sacred to him. We are all the same to him. Palestinians. The enemy."

Israeli officials, in turn, have repeatedly said that the gunmen are trying to provoke the army to attack the church by hiding there – but that Israel is well aware of the sensitivity of the place and is trying to resolve the standoff.

Relations between Christian and Muslim Palestinians have often been strained by the conflict with Israel – as recently as last month, Christian residents of Beit Jala were complaining to Christian organizations in the world that Muslim Palestinians were deliberately using the houses of Christians to fire on the Jerusalem neighborhood of Gilo. These voices are quiet now.

"It has not always been a honeymoon but our squabbles are all in the family. Some go to church and some go to mosque. But we are all Arabs," says Musa Darwish, the Muslim director of the Al Liqa Center for Religious Studies in Bethlehem. "Today we are strengthened by the same fight – this is no a fight about religion. It's about nationality and politics and land."

On Sunday, the spiritual leader of Islamic militant group Hamas Sheikh Ahmed Yassin seemed to be making this very point as he joined Christians and Muslims in Gaza to demonstrate against the Bethlehem standoff.

Peter Qumri, the Christian Palestinian director of Bethlehem's general hospital points at another aspect of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict that is pushing the Christians here closer to their Muslim brothers. "The support of the Christian right in the US for Israel has embarrassed us and forced us to prove our identity and become even more nationalistic," he says. Sitting in his office surrounded by a framed photograph of himself kissing the pope's hand on one side and a giant poster of Arafat on the other, Dr. Qumri says that "any Christian that comes to support Israel is not a real Christian."

Professor Khoury concurs. "There is a deliberate ignoring of the Palestinian Christians by the Christian West," she asserts. "It is easier to pretend this is a religious war between the Judeo-Christian traditions and the frightening Muslim world. But, of course, it is so much more complicated."

On April 2, in the middle of evening prayers, Palestinian gunmen in the middle of a battle with the Israeli military, shot open the locks on the century-old door of the Franciscan monastery and rushed in. The gunmen have been under siege there ever since, together with some 44 members of the clergy from the Greek Orthodox, Armenian, and Roman Catholic Churches who were inside the building at the time. Whether the clergy are willing hosts supportive of the gunmen, as the Palestinians claim; or hostages, as Israel maintains, is unclear. Also inside are dozens of children and teenagers who ducked into church to avoid the fighting.

Israel, whose troops are surrounding the church, says they are after 30 to 40 of the gunmen who are suspected of specific terrorist crimes. The rest of the besieged, they say – over and again via loudspeakers directed at the compound – can go free if they surrender.

So far, however, there have been precious few surrenders. Five Palestinians surrendered Sunday and are being interrogated by Israel. Taher Manasra, who left the church late last week, was shot in the leg by soldiers when he was spotted just outside the compound – plucking grass to eat around the statute of the Virgin Mary. "Hunger was stronger than fear," he told reporters from his hospital bed Sunday.

Inside the church, the priests continue to celebrate Mass each day while the gunmen reportedly pass the time playing cards. Scheduled talks between Palestinian and Israeli officials to end the crisis have been cancelled on four different occasions – with each side blaming the other for the cancellation.

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