May 012002

I am sitting at my desk in my bedroom, listening to M-16 and AK-47 gunfire coming from inside the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem. This, one of the holiest sites in Christianity, has for a month been the refuge of 200 Palestinian gunmen besieged by the Israeli army outside.

In a move that President Bush called “hopeful,” 26 Palestinians emerged from the church yesterday, making us believe there was a chance the standoff would end.

Now I sit and hear a “bell of distress” sound from the church tower, interrupted only by gunshots. Yasser Arafat himself calls the bells “a cry for help.”

Is this a movie? It must be. I’ve heard bullets before, in movies starring John Wayne and Bruce Willis. They don’t sound as hollow as these real ones. I keep thinking it’s only a matter of time now before Harrison Ford emerges to save the day and prevent the birthplace of Jesus from burning down.

But no – this is real. Tom Aspell is standing outside with his video phone, telling MSNBC anchor Lester Holt what is happening. He pauses to allow his viewers to hear the gunfire.

I am not one to openly talk about my faith and I don’t try to convince others to believe what I believe. But I can’t ignore this. I can’t escape the sick, hollow feeling I have in my stomach right now, as I watch orange flames shoot from perhaps the holiest site in my religion.

I can’t ignore what the Bible says in St. John’s Revelation, that the second coming would begin in the Holy Land where Jesus was born.

The Vatican, as preoccupied as it is with a few dirty old men, has asked Israel to find a way to end this siege. And the standoff has ended in Ramallah, with the exchange of six Palestinian prisoners resulting in the release of Arafat from the grip of the Israeli military. So why is it not over at this Christian site? Why has no one asked about the Christian perspective on this?

The news tries to ask that question, too.

“I think this is horrible,” Yvonne Haddad, a religious studies expert at Georgetown University, tells Holt. “I think President Bush could have done more … this is a holy site for Arab Christians.”

Excuse me? Arab Christians, yes, but why aren’t Catholic and Greek Orthodox Christians included in that sentence? (Protestants have identified a different site as the place of Jesus’ birth.)

Haddad continued: “President Bush feels liable to the Israeli lobby … the Arab world is outraged.”

Indeed they are, but I am Catholic, and I am outraged. The Holy Land is holy for me, too. No one seems to care, or at least acknowledge, that the Mideast crisis holds special significance for people other than Arabs and Jews.

The site where Catholics believe Jesus was born was identified by St. Helena in the third century C.E., during her trip through the Middle East, and the church itself was constructed under the direction of the Roman emperor Constantine II in the fourth century. In Bethlehem, one of the more hotly contested cities on the West Bank, the church is revered as a historical and holy place. Palestinians took refuge there likely because they figured no one would attack a site with such religious significance. This was a tactic during the Middle Ages, too – criminals or other refugees would take shelter in churches, claiming the sanctity of the site would protect them, and it usually did.

But not today. Not in the age of Uzis and submachine guns.

And all anyone discusses are the Palestinians and the Jews.

Well, this is a Christian problem too, and that should be more widely understood.

Becky is a junior majoring in journalism and history.

 Posted by at 5:00 pm

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