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Sunday, 12 May, 2002, 17:58 GMT 18:58 UK
Bethlehem comes to life
Roman Catholic cardinal giving communion
Church services resumed after six weeks
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By Peter Biles
BBC correspondent in Bethlehem

Sunday morning in Bethlehem. The bells ring out around Manger Square, as people head towards the Church of the Nativity to celebrate mass.

It has been a familiar scene for centuries, but unrecognisable from the way Bethlehem looked just a week ago.

When we look at our history, there have been worse things at the church

Father Barnabas, Greek Orthodox priest
Last Sunday, Manger Square was a frightening and desolate place. Israeli tanks and armoured personnel carriers maintained a vigil outside the church while nervous, young Israeli soldiers patrolled the nearby streets and alleyways.

Inside the church, 39 armed Palestinian militants and scores of civilians had been trapped since 2 April when Israeli forces occupied this Palestinian town.

Barricades of razor wire, brought in by the Israelis, prevented the journalists in their flak-jackets from reaching the square.

Most local residents stayed indoors, observing the Israeli-imposed curfew. The stench of rotting food filled the air.

On-off deal

For seven days, a deal to end the siege at the Church had been on the cards.

On Tuesday, BBC radio producer Joanne Cayford and I spent 12 hours on a sun-baked rooftop overlooking the church.

There was little time to appreciate one of the most famous views in Christendom.

With our eyes focused on the tiny Door of Humility, at the front of the church, a live satellite link to London was established when it seemed that the Palestinians were about to emerge.

Everyone's talking about Palestinian suicide bombers, but no-one condemns Israel for the 39 days of closure and curfew inflicted on 100,000 people

Father Ra'ed
Israeli troops brought in barriers and a metal detector to screen those leaving.

Then, to our frustration and disappointment, the on-off negotiations between the Israelis and the Palestinians suddenly collapsed again when Italy refused to accept 13 of the militants on Israel's most-wanted list.

On Friday, however, a new agreement was finalised.

One by one the Palestinians finally filed out of the church. The hard core was flown to Cyprus and the remainder moved to the Gaza Strip.

Within hours, the clergy set to work cleaning the Church of the Nativity.

Vibrant life

This Sunday morning, our radio team returned to Bethlehem to join the crowds converging on Manger Square.

In place of the Israeli tanks which had withdrawn from Bethlehem on Friday night, cars were now parked in every available space.

As the sweeping-up continued, a casual glance across the square revealed little obvious sign of the recent Israeli military occupation.

Israeli tank about to be put on a truck
Isreli tanks have left Bethlehem
Welcoming his congregation, a Greek Orthodox priest, Father Barnabas, spoke for many in the town.

"When we look at our history, there have been worse things at the church," he admitted.

"Thank God, nothing much happened this time. Today is something special because the siege ended peacefully."

However, another clergyman, Father Ra'ed, an adjutant of the Latin Patriarch, reminded us of what the people of Bethlehem have had to endure.

"Everyone's talking about Palestinian suicide bombers, but no-one condemns Israel for the 39 days of closure and curfew inflicted on 100,000 people," he says.

The mood is one of relief and joy that the Israelis have gone.

As the smell of incense floated through the Church of Nativity during the Sunday service, Bethlehem was alive and relaxed again.

See also:

12 May 02 | Middle East
Israel sends Gaza reservists home
11 May 02 | Middle East
Arab leaders denounce violence
11 May 02 | Middle East
Church emerges unharmed from siege
10 May 02 | Middle East
Eyewitness: Calm end to siege
10 May 02 | Middle East
No winners from siege deal
11 May 02 | Middle East
In pictures: Bethlehem clean-up
10 May 02 | Middle East
In pictures: End of Bethlehem siege
09 May 02 | Middle East
Timeline: Bethlehem siege
09 May 02 | Middle East
Bethlehem siege: Inside the negotiations
10 May 02 | Middle East
Gaza gives militants hero's welcome
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