Bethlehem: A Year After the Basilica Siege

City Still Enduring Hard Times

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BETHLEHEM, West Bank, APRIL 3, 2003 ( A year after the 39-day siege of the Basilica of the Nativity, the situation of the people here is even more serious.

The Israeli siege of the basilica was in reaction to its occupation by over 200 Palestinians, both militiamen and civilians. It all came to an end on May 10, 2002, when Father Ibrahim Faltas, custodian of the basilica, accompanied the militiamen out of the complex.

Thirteen of them, considered the most dangerous by Israel, were sent abroad.

Since then, «conditions in the Holy Land have not improved, especially in Bethlehem,» said Father Giovanni Battistelli, the custodian of the Holy Land, in a SIR agency report.

«The continuous curfews have aggravated the situation, not to mention the plan to construct a wall around Bethlehem, which includes the demolition of other inhabited nuclei and the separation of a group of 60 Christian families from the rest of the city,» he said.

«There is still a lack of food and medicines, and now of houses, too, after the demolitions carried out by the Israeli army,» Father Battistelli said.

«The Custody has launched a plan in Bethlehem for the construction of 36 houses for Christian families in need and those that have lost their homes because of the demolition,» the Franciscan explained.

«This program, to which the Pope has also contributed, represents a great help for our Christian families, who otherwise are obliged to leave this land,» he added.

The Custodian of the Holy Land announced that 70 apartments will be blessed April 12 in the St. Francis Village project in Bethphage.

«In 2,000 years it never happened that armed men took up positions inside and outside the Nativity,» Father Ibrahim Faltas told Vatican Radio. «Besiegers and besieged, there is little difference when the objective is to kill one another.»

«I cannot forget that in the church of the Nativity, in the holiest place in the world, eight people were killed and more than 25 were wounded,» the priest continued.

During those days, 240 Palestinians, 30 religious, four nuns, three Greek-Orthodox and three Armenians lived together. «We could tell the Lord was always with us,» he added.

According to Father Faltas, the condition of the people of Bethlehem «is terrible,» as 85% live off tourism, a sector that is now blocked. «Moreover, with the war in Iraq, unemployment is now higher than 90%.»

He had this message for the international community: «Work for peace in the Holy Land. If you want peace throughout the world, above all you must resolve the problem between Palestinians and Israelis.»

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