Ten years after the occupation of the Church of the Nativity

- in Bethlehem –
Ten years ago, for 40 days in April and May 2002, the Church of the Nativity was occupied by armed gunmen. The Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) were outside, the Palestinian armed forces inside, and the Christian world fervently tried not to take offence.

It was a shameful episode, both in its substance and in the reaction to it, a sad signal at the beginning of this century that the persecution of Christians would proceed apace.

I wrote 10 years ago this week: “The Church of the Nativity was desecrated. The Christian response was a disgrace.” Ten years later, most have seemed to forget that the crisis ever took place. The Christians in this region cannot so easily forget its consequences.

The second intifada was well under way in the spring of 2002, this one marked by suicide bombs. The first intifada in the late 1980s was marked by street protests and Palestinian boys throwing rocks at Israeli security forces. The second intifada brought the terrorist brigades of Yasser Arafat blowing up Jews in cafes, restaurants and buses.

The gun on an Israeli tank points at the door of the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, past two Franciscan friars, during the 2002 occupation of the church by Palestinian gunmen.
The gun on an Israeli tank points at the door of the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, past two Franciscan friars, during the 2002 occupation of the church by Palestinian gunmen.
CNS photo/Reuters

On April 1, 2002 a gun battle broke out in Bethlehem between the IDF and Palestinians. Several dozen armed Palestinians then fled the IDF and stormed into the Church of the Nativity, knowing that the IDF would not enter the holy place to pursue them. A stand-off set in, with the Palestinians refusing to leave and the IDF demanding the right to arrest the terrorists they were seeking. It lasted until May 12, when an agreement was reached to allow some of the Palestinians to go to Cyprus and Italy, while the majority were transferred to the Palestinian Authority in Gaza.

Language was an early battleground. The IDF spoke of those who violently entered the basilica as “terrorists.” The Franciscans who were responsible for the Catholic part of the complex, along with the Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem, preferred any other term — “gunmen” or “combatant” were the neutral terms preferred. The Israelis spoke of the “occupation” of the basilica, while the Palestinian Catholics opted to speak of a “siege.” The Holy See adopted the awkward but exquisitely non-committal “occupation-siege.”

There was a vigourous effort on the part of the local Catholic diocese and the Franciscan custodians to frame the whole matter as part of the tradition of those seeking sanctuary from injustice in holy places. Yet with armed Islamists entering the church as a tactical maneuver during a shooting battle, and maintaining their weapons while inside, that was always implausible. Indeed, sanctuary does not involve shooting from within the church, which took place and resulted in return fire, killing a Palestinian young man.

As to the moral status of the occupying forces, the reluctance of European countries to take them gave a good indication that this was not a noble example of civil disobedience. With Israel refusing to allow those it judged responsible for terrorism back into Israel proper or the West Bank, the eventual compromise was for the majority to be moved to Gaza, with a few granted exile elsewhere.

I argued at the time that the proper response to the occupation by force of arms of the basilica ought to have been outrage, and preferably holy indignation. The local Catholic patriarch used the occasion instead to ratchet up anti-Israeli rhetoric and remarkably characterized the whole event as “strengthening” Christian-Muslim relations.

Very little was said, then or now, about how the presence of armed Islamist militants in a Christian shrine was a gravely sacrilegious act. The basilica was desecrated by both the presence of armaments and the conduct of the occupiers. And when the global Christian response was muted, and the local Christian response took the side of the Islamists, the lesson was learned well.

In the decade since, we have learned how rumours — false or otherwise — of a Koran being manhandled somewhere is enough to inflame the Islamic world. The actual armed occupation of one of Christianity’s holiest places produced apologies, not apoplexy. Is it any wonder that Islamist violence against Christians continues apace, especially in the Arab world? The terrorists in Egypt who kill Christians after Christmas Mass likely took note of the weak response from the Christian world when the Church of the Nativity was desecrated.

The Palestinians of Bethlehem took notice too. If their own ancient sanctuary was not safe, could they be confident in their future? The pace of emigration continued, so that Christians are a diminishing minority, and those that remain are largely mute on questions of persecution, except to inveigh against the Israelis.

The 21st century will witness the disappearance of Christians from Bethlehem and many other historic communities in the Islamic world. Much handwringing is done about that, including the recent special synod in Rome on the Church in the Middle East. Yet the timid response in 2002 accelerated the very process that so many now wish would stop.