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Thursday, 4 April, 2002, 12:45 GMT 13:45 UK
Church with a turbulent history
Floor plan for the Church of the Nativity
The Church of the Nativity in the heart of Bethlehem marks one of Christianity's most sacred sites - the birthplace of Christ.

Situated on Manger Square 8 kilometres (5 miles) from Jerusalem, the church is built over a grotto where the Virgin Mary is said to have given birth to Jesus.

The church's large fortress-like exterior stands as a testament to its turbulent history.

For centuries, it was one of the most fought over holy places. It was seized and defended by a succession of armies - including Muslim and Crusader forces.

It is controlled jointly by three Christian denominations - the Armenian Church, the Roman Catholic Church and the Greek Orthodox Church.

  • The Grotto of the Nativity contains the manger that is believed to be the place where the baby Jesus was laid after he was born. The grotto is encased in white marble.

  • The site of the birth is marked by a 14-point star on a marble stone.

  • The High Altar standing above the Grotto.

The site has been venerated by Christians since St Justin Martyr identified it as the site of Jesus' birth in the second century.

Place of refuge

In 333 AD the Emperor Constantine completed the basilica, which attracts thousands of pilgrims from around the world every year.

The original structure was completely destroyed in the early 6th century.

It was rebuilt in its present form in 527-65 AD during the rule of Emperor Justinian.

Over the years, the site has been expanded.

The church's compound covers and area of approximately 12,000 square metres and includes, besides the Basilica, a Latin convent, a Greek Orthodox convent and an Armenian convent.

Speaking recently, the current Latin patriarch of Jerusalem and head of the Catholic church in the region, Michel Sabbah, described the church's basilica as a "place of refuge for everyone".

He added that this meant Israelis as well as Palestinians.

Pilgrimage

The main access to the basilica is by the very small Door of Humility, which visitors must enter bending over, as if entering a cave or grotto.

It was said to have been made during the Ottoman era to prevent mounted horsemen from entering the basilica.

The Palestinian Authority was given control over Bethlehem in December 1995, when Israeli troops pulled out.

Bethlehem is mentioned in Genesis as Ephratah, the burial place of Rachel - a place of pilgrimage for both Jews and Muslims.

It is also referred to in the Old Testament as the home of King David's family.

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