Issue No.
169, May 2012 Latest update 9 2014f August 2014, at 4.39 am
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Church of the Nativity, Bethlehem. Photo from Palestine Image Bank.

Flashback From the Siege of the Nativity to the Siege of the City A Call for Peace, Love, and Understanding
By Nada Atrash
During a meeting a few weeks ago I learned from Fr. Ibrahim Faltas, the president of the John Paul II Foundation for the Middle East and bursar of the Franciscan Custody of the Holy Land, about the book launch on May 5, 2012, for a book about the siege of the Church of the Nativity ten years ago. At that moment, I was mesmerised and could hardly concentrate, perhaps because of the terrible memories that came to mind of being under the forty-day curfew. All that we were able to do during that time was sit in front of the television and watch the news, or listen to the terrible sounds of bombing during the night, not knowing what was happening or where. During that seemingly interminable time, Fr. Faltas was the one who kept us informed about what was happening in and around the church.

During the meeting, Fr. Faltas told us how important it is for him to share about the experience of the siege of the Church of the Nativity. I immediately expressed interest in reading the book so that I could understand more about what it was like to be trapped in the middle of an event that captivated the whole world for forty successive days. Fr. Faltas promised to give me a copy as soon as it became available. That night I could not sleep as I remembered those days and thought about the feelings that would resurface as I read the book. Mostly I thought about the depression that I might go through during and after the reading.

Two things captivated me when I started reading the book: the first was a note at the beginning by Fr. Faltas that said that the works implemented by the Franciscan fathers aim to preserve the image and glory of Bethlehem through helping to restore the various pieces that make up the colourful mosaic of Bethlehem. The second was that the aim of these memoirs is to document what happened in the town of Bethlehem, so as not to forget.

The book conveys in detail the forty days of the siege from two points of view: the first one is meant to reflect what was happening in the outside world through the stories documented by the two Italian journalists, Guiseppe Bonavolontà and Mark Innaro. Mark stayed for thirty hours in the church and was able to leave it ten hours after the siege started. Afterwards, both journalists continued to document the event from the outside, building on interviews with various people who were involved in the event.

The other point of view is meant to document the daily life of those who were inside the church through interviewing the eyewitnesses who were there. The most important information was provided by Fr. Faltas’ memoirs, which were recorded during the siege; Fr. Faltas was the connection between what was going on inside the church and the rest of the world. The memoirs shed much light on various issues related to the history of the church and the Franciscan presence in Bethlehem, as well as their continuous efforts to maintain human dignity. St. Francis of Assisi, the founder of the Franciscan Order, was the role model that Fr. Faltas cited throughout the siege.

The details of the story are captivating. We are led through the efforts of Fr. Faltas, the sisters, and the other priests who endeavoured to maintain and guard the lives of everybody in the church and to provide for their basic needs. We also encounter two brave seminary students who were able to use their knowledge to provide electricity and water. The details of every single incident are recorded: the escape, the injuries, the deaths, the lack of food and water, the depression, the sacrifices, and the arrival of the peace group. Underpinning all the stories is a message of peace and respect for all human life, regardless of a person’s specific beliefs or background.

In addition to the nitty-gritty details, we are also offered a sense of the prayers and support of His Holiness the late Pope John Paul II, and those of the late Palestinian President Yasser Arafat.

The book ends with a description of one of my clearest memories: the evacuation of the church, with Fr. Faltas accompanying everybody out of the church, one by one, through the metal-detection gate. This scene brought to my mind both sorrow and relief - sorrow for the families of the martyrs and the exiled, and relief because of the relatively peaceful end to the standoff. Throughout the book, the message of faith in God, belief in peace, and love comes through loud and clear.

During the siege of the Church of the Nativity between April 2 and May 9, 2002, which was part of Operation Defensive Shield, two hundred Palestinians were trapped in the church, along with the clergymen and sisters of the Armenian and Greek Orthodox churches as well as the Roman Catholic Franciscans. Eight people were killed, and thirty-nine were exiled: thirteen to Europe, three to Italy, three to Spain, two to Greece, two to Ireland, one to Finland, one to Portugal and one to Cyprus. The remaining twenty-six were sent to Gaza.

The book From the Siege of the Nativity to the Siege of the City will be launched in Bethlehem on Saturday, May 5, 2012,at the Convention Palace, under the patronage of the Palestinian president, His Excellency Mahmoud Abbas.

I would like to thank Fr. Ibrahim Faltas for giving me the privilege to be among the first readers of this Arabic translation, and, most important, for opening my mind to a new perspective about war and conflict. Indeed, it is a call for love, peace, and understanding.

Nada Atrash is the head of the Research and Training Unit at the Centre for Cultural Heritage Preservation - Bethlehem. Nada can be reached at natrash@cchp.ps.

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