- The Washington Times - Friday, April 5, 2002

From combined dispatches

BETHLEHEM, West Bank For three decades, Samir Ibrahim Salman rose every day at dawn to ring the bells of the Church of the Nativity, one of Christianity's holiest sites.

Yesterday, the church bells did not toll.

At 6:30 a.m., the middle-aged Christian Palestinian left home for the short walk across Manger Square to the church, where Israeli troops were besieging about 200 Palestinians, some of them armed, who took refuge there Tuesday.

Moments later, he was shot in the chest.

"As soon as he left his house, a sniper shot him," Anton Salman, a distant cousin of the bell-ringer, told Reuters news agency by telephone from the West Bank town.

Palestinians say they are convinced an Israeli fired the fatal bullet. The Israeli army said troops had fired no shots near the church.

"He had been used to ringing the church bells at dawn every day since 1967," Anton Salman said. "Almost everyone in Bethlehem knows him."

Sacred to Christians, the 1,600-year-old Church of the Nativity is no stranger to violent turmoil and controversy.

Mr. Salman's death at the purported birthplace of Jesus came amid pitched battles between Israeli soldiers and Palestinians that began earlier this week. Some Palestinians have taken refuge in the church.

The Vatican, fearing damage, said it is the "duty of the parties in the conflict to safeguard holy sites, which are very significant for the three monotheistic religions and the heritage of humanity."

The church is built like a citadel over a cave where Jesus is believed to have been born, although some question the evidentiary underpinnings.

According to the New Testament, the Virgin Mary wrapped the newborn Jesus and placed him in a manger. A 14-point silver star set into the floor of the church's Grotto of the Nativity marks the spot.

An inscription reads, "Hic de Virgine Maria Jesus Christus natus est" ("Here Jesus Christ was born to the Virgin Mary.")

The original basilica, erected in the fourth century by Roman Emperor Constantine, was destroyed in the Samaritan Revolt of 529.

It was rebuilt on the same site, slightly different in plan and incorporating different parts of the original building. This basilica was built in the shape of a cross with a tripartite apse.

For centuries, the basilica was one of the most fought-over sacred sites in the Holy Land.

It was by coincidence that this building escaped destruction during the Persian invasion of 614.

It was the only major church in the country to be spared, perhaps because the Persians were surprised to discover a representation of the Magi from Persia at a facade decorated with a colorful mosaic. So out of reverence and respect for their ancestors, they reportedly decided to honor these sages by sparing the church.

Later, the building was seized and defended by a succession of Muslim and Crusader armies. Having been under siege so often, the church's exterior took on a fortress-like appearance.

The church's main entrance, one of the sixth-century entrances, is through a very small door.

The door was first reduced in size by the Crusaders to keep out attackers; centuries later it was further reduced to keep out looters.

Over its long life, detailed rules came into play governing upkeep of the basilica by various Christian denominations that share control over its different parts.

In recent years, the church has been plagued by rivalry among Christian groups fighting over the privilege of cleaning and repairing the site.

In the mid-1980s, police had to break up a brawl between Greek Orthodox and Armenian priests fighting about who should clean a wall above the entrance to the church grotto.

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