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Thursday, 4 April, 2002, 10:40 GMT 11:40 UK
Bethlehem priest shelters Palestinians
Israeli soldiers in Bethlehem
Israel says it is rooting out "terrorists"
A priest in Bethlehem says his church and others all over the town are being used as refuges by local families fleeing from Israeli tanks and soldiers.

Father Magdi Siryani told the BBC his own Church of Our Lady Fatima was housing about 25 people.

Some Palestinian militants have sought shelter in the Church of the Nativity in Manger Square - the reputed birthplace of Christ.

The only place to go, the last resort, is the churches

Father Magdi Siryani

"Dozens and dozens of churches are full of people who just fled this terror," said Father Siryani.

"People are terrorised, they are panicking outside.

"The only place to go, the last resort, is the churches."

'Weapons useless'

Father Siryani denied the churches were sheltering gunmen, saying that, on principle, weapons were not allowed inside.

A Palestinian weeps in the middle of Bethlehem
Father Siryani said his church was full of "old men, women, kids"
"[The reason] they did come to the church is because the weapon is helpless and useless at this point," he said.

"They left their weapons, they came to the church, there are families, old men, women, kids - this is what we have in the churches."

The Church of Our Lady Fatima is just 400 metres (0.25 mile) from Manger Square, where Father Siryani said the situation at the Church of the Nativity was "very bad".

"[The Israelis] are surrounding the building, with hundreds and hundreds of soldiers, heavy artillery and tanks are all over the place," he said.

"Inside, they are lacking water, they are lacking medical help because some of them are injured [and] ambulances are not allowed in."

'Anything could happen'

He said he did not believe that the army would shoot at the church - built on the spot where the Virgin Mary is supposed to have given birth in a stable - but people still feared for their safety.

"The shooting is so random and shelling is random and anything could happen any time," he said.

But he hoped the troops would leave as the Israelis had achieved their goal.

If they are expecting the churches will allow them in, they are mistaken - I think they have to leave

Father Magdi Siryani

"Militarily speaking, they succeeded in their invasion.

"Now their presence there is useless, because unless they invade the churches, break into the churches, they won't be able to do anything.

"If they are expecting the churches will allow them in, they are mistaken. I think they have to leave," Father Siryani said.

"Our main concern is dealing with the humanitarian emergency issues like picking up the bodies and giving them burials, picking up the injured people and trying to help them, take them to hospitals and sending people to their houses."

Israeli government spokesman Ra'anan Gissin
"This war is not about occupation, it's about terrorism"
The BBC's Andrew Burroughs
"Christians have added to the tension"
See also:

04 Apr 02 | Middle East
Israel reoccupies most of West Bank
04 Apr 02 | Middle East
EU commits to crisis diplomacy
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