BETHLEHEM (BP)–The International Christian Embassy in Jerusalem has charged that Palestinian gunmen are using “the landmark Church of the Nativity and other religious sites in Bethlehem as a safe haven” and using “innocent civilians as human shields.”
The ICEJ statement condemning “the deliberate and provocative exploitation by armed Palestinian elements” quoted the embassy’s executive director, Malcolm Hedding, as saying, “As a voice for millions of Christians worldwide, we cannot accept this transgression on the sanctity of the Church of the Nativity and we thoroughly denounce it.”
The ancient church on Manger Square in Bethlehem became a focal point in the Israeli-Arab conflict when Palestinian gunmen, estimated at 250 by The Jerusalem Post April 5, took refuge in the church as Israeli troops took control of the city in a region-wide military initiative against Palestinian suicide bombers.
From 50 to 60 priests and nuns also are inside the church, by The Post’s estimate April 5.
The British Broadcasting Corporation reported April 5 that the Israeli army “has accused Palestinian militants of holding Christians ‘hostage’ in the church.” The gunmen are described as mostly being part of Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat’s militant Fatah faction, while some are related to such anti-Israel militant groups as Islamic Jihad and Hamas.
CNSNews.com’s Jerusalem bureau, meanwhile, reported an Israeli army spokesman as recounting that the army was negotiating for the release of the priests and nuns who, as the news service put it, “are being held hostage by the militants in the church.” The army spokesman said Israel had offered food and medical supplies, but the Palestinians in the church had refused the offer, CNSNews.com reported.
The Jerusalem Post reported April 5 that Israeli Defense Forces Col. Marcel Aviv said Israel had offered the Palestinians various chances to exit the church peacefully but Palestinian Authority leaders, as the paper put it, “have so far rejected a peaceful resolution to the issue.”
The ICEJ’s Hedding said the Palestinian gunmen’s entry into the church “is a premeditated offence by militant outlaws who know it is a place central to our faith and thus would provide them unquestioned refuge.”
“While the current conflict is a difficult and complex one, everyone must recognize that these Palestinian gunmen took the battle inside this church by design,” Hedding said.
The ICEJ statement accused the Palestinian Liberation Organization of having carried out “a similar tactic” during the war in Lebanon where it said “the PLO systematically defiled and destroyed churches and other Christian properties.”
The statement by the Jerusalem-based interdenominational Christian organization was reported April 4 by ASSIST News Service.
President George W. Bush, in comments at the White House April 4, declared, “The storms of violence cannot go on. Enough is enough,” CNSNews.com reported.
“This is a conflict that can widen — or an opportunity we can seize,” Bush said in announcing he will send Secretary of State Colin Powell to the Middle East to seek a way out of a downward spiral that, as CNSNews.com described it, has horrified — and divided — the world.
“The Middle East can write a new story of trade, and development, and democracy, and we stand ready to help,” Bush said. “Yet this progress can only come in an atmosphere of peace. And the United States will work for all the children of Abraham to know the benefits of peace.”
Bush had stern words for Palestinian Authority leader Yasser Arafat and the Arab states while also urging Israel to end its current military incursions into the West Bank, describing them as a temporary measure that will work against peace in the long run, CNSNews.com reported.
“When an 18-year-old Palestinian girl is induced to blow herself up, and in the process kills a 17-year-old Israeli girl, the future itself is dying,” Bush said. Terrorism does not help the Palestinian cause, the president repeated several times. “To the contrary, suicide bombing missions could well blow up the best and only hope for a Palestinian state,” CNSNews.com quoted Bush as saying.
Bush said all Arab states must keep their promise to “actively oppose terror in all its forms.” Stop the terrorist activities, Bush said, speaking directly to the Palestinian Authority, the Palestinian people and other Arab nations. Disrupt the terrorist financing, he said, and stop glorifying terror in state-owned media. Suicide bombers are not martyrs, the president said. “They’re murderers.”
Bush also had harsh remarks for Iraq, which is rewarding Palestinian parents by paying them money when their children blow themselves up, CNSNews.com reported. Bush described Iraq as “guilty of soliciting murder of the worst kind.”
Arab states must accept Israel as a nation and as a neighbor, Bush said, because “peace with Israel is the only avenue to prosperity and success for a new Palestinian state.” Israel and a new Palestinian state should be economic partners, not mortal enemies, Bush said, according to CNSNews.com.
Addressing Arafat specifically, Bush said, “The chairman of the Palestinian Authority has not consistently opposed or confronted terrorists.” Arafat remains confined by Israeli troops to a few rooms in his battered headquarters in the West Bank city of Ramallah.
“The situation in which he finds himself today is largely of his own making,” Bush said. “He has missed his opportunities, and thereby betrayed the hopes of the people he is supposed to lead.”
Given Arafat’s failure, Bush said Israel feels it has no choice but to strike at the suicide-bomber terror networks that are killing its citizens, CNSNews.com reported. “Yet Israel must understand that its response to these recent attacks is only a temporary measure,” Bush said. “We all know today’s situation runs the risk of aggravating long-term bitterness and undermining relationships that are critical to any hope of peace.”
In also calling for a halt to “Israeli settlement activity in occupied territories,” Bush urged Israel’s withdrawal “to secure and recognized boundaries” as set forth in United Nations resolutions 242 and 338.
Israel should show concern and respect for the dignity of the Palestinian people “who are and will be their neighbors,” Bush also said, urging Israel to distinguish between terrorists and “ordinary Palestinians seeking to provide for their own families.” Be compassionate at checkpoints and border crossings, he urged Israel, and spare Palestinians daily humiliation and allow peaceful people to go back to work, CNSNews.com reported.
“I speak as a committed friend of Israel,” the president said. “I speak out of a concern for its long-term security — security that will come with a genuine peace.” As Israel steps back, “responsible” Palestinian leaders and Israel’s Arab neighbors must step forward, Bush said, to show the world that they are truly committed to peace. He called for an immediate ceasefire and an immediate crackdown on terrorism.
Less than a day later, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon allowed Washington’s special Middle East envoy Anthony Zinni to meet with Arafat at his Ramallah headquarters April 5.
Sharon, however, in a statement, responded to Bush’s stance, saying that Israel would not end its military action until it had accomplished its goal of destroying the terrorist infrastructure. The BBC quoted Sharon as stating that “negotiating before terror is subdued will only lead to its continuation.” Since March 29, the Israeli army has taken control of most major cities formerly under Palestinian governance and has detained hundreds of suspects. The BBC reported that Israel was estimating the number at 900 Palestinian detainees; it quoted a Palestinian politician, Saeb Erekat, as counting 80 Palestinian deaths.
In several countries, including France, news agencies have reported that synagogues and other Jewish sites have been attacked by protesters amid fears of rising anti-Semitism across Europe and other continents.