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Saturday, 11 May, 2002, 00:51 GMT 01:51 UK
Church emerges unharmed from siege
Palestinian Christian man lights a candle after the Church of Nativity siege ended
Until the intifada, the church was a major tourist attraction
The overwhelming smell of urine was the first thing to hit visitors to Bethlehem's Church of the Nativity after the dramatic and bloody 39-day siege of the compound by the Israeli army.


I can't believe this is the house of God, just look at it

Palestinian Christian Sandy Shahin
Local Palestinians rushed to the building after the militants holed up there had gone and Israeli forces conducted a security sweep of the building.

The people found dirty dishes piled up on an altar and filthy blankets and the detritus of the siege strewn across the ancient stone floor.

But apart from the stench and these superficial blemishes, the basilica marking Jesus' traditional birthplace was found to be largely unscathed.

Greek Orthodox Patriarch Irineos I (R) talks with an unidentified priest as they inspect the damage
The Greek Orthodox Patriarch (right) inspected the damage
As well as the blankets, journalists saw mattresses, lemon peel, lighters, sunglasses, a tube of toothpaste, a bottle of aftershave, plastic bags, cigarette butts, a comb and large cooking pots in the central aisle.

A metal stove and gas canisters had been placed on one side for cooking.

The panes of several windows near the ceiling were broken, but there appeared to be no other damage.

The only serious damage was to a Franciscan study hall next to the church which had been gutted by a mystery fire - and a statue of the Virgin Mary in the courtyard hit by a bullet.

Pristine

By contrast, the small birth grotto, supposed to mark the exact birthplace of Jesus, was in pristine condition.

Candles at the Church of the Nativity
The church hopes to return now to its purely spiritual function
Priests said some of the gunmen and foreign activists had initially slept there because it was the warmest spot, but had been persuaded to leave so that daily services could be held there.

One priest complained that foreigners who had slipped in during the siege had desecrated the church by smoking and drinking alcohol.

"This is the place where Jesus was born. I can't believe this is the house of God, just look at it," said Sandy Shahin, a Roman Catholic teenager who rushed into the church minutes after the end of the siege on Friday.

"It's not a church any more, it's a place filled with beds and trash," she said between sobs.

Sanctity protected

Father Nicholas, a Franciscan priest from Mexico, denied Israeli claims that the several dozen nuns and priests who had stayed in the compound during the siege were hostages.

"We were there by choice," he said, to protect the sanctity of the site.

Israeli soldier in Church of Nativity
The various denominations argued over whether to allow Israeli forces to enter
Having initially expropriated precious items such as candelabras, icons and candlesticks, Father Nicholas said the valuables were later returned.

Israeli bomb experts swept the church at the request of some of the priests and said they found 40 explosive devices, several booby-trapped and hidden in corners and behind cupboards.

The standoff began on 2 April, as more than 200 Palestinians, including wanted militants, policemen and civilians, ran into the church fleeing advancing Israeli troops.

Several armed men and two civilians were shot dead by Israeli snipers over the next 39 days.

The church is no stranger to conflict. It was largely destroyed by the Samaritans during a revolt in 529.


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