- The Washington Times - Sunday, May 12, 2002

BETHLEHEM, West Bank Clergy from rival Christian denominations held hands in the Church of the Nativity yesterday and said the Lord's Prayer in a rare display of unity as they reclaimed the shrine after a 39-day standoff between Israeli troops and Palestinian gunmen.
Throughout the day, black-robed monks and local volunteers scrubbed the church, where tradition holds that Jesus was born, clearing out trash left behind by more than 200 Palestinians who holed up inside for nearly six weeks.
The siege was lifted Friday after 13 militiamen were deported to Cyprus and 26 others were sent to the Gaza Strip. After the standoff ended, Israeli troops withdrew from Bethlehem, where residents had been confined to their homes under a 24-hour curfew since April 2.
Latin Patriarch Michel Sabbah, the top Roman Catholic clergyman in the Holy Land, visited the church yesterday. In the grotto, a few steps down from the basilica, Patriarch Sabbah knelt and kissed a silver star on the marble floor, revered by Christians as the spot of Jesus' birth.
Patriarch Sabbah and senior clergymen from other denominations, including Greek and Syrian Orthodox, held hands in the grotto and spoke the Lord's Prayer in Arabic.
The various denominations often are at odds in the church where they jealously guard their turf; the Roman Catholics, the Greek Orthodox and the Armenian Orthodox each control different areas of the 4th century basilica.
In one incident in the mid-1980s, monks from different sects fought with broomsticks over who had the right to clean a small section of the wall. In the cleanup yesterday, each group concentrated on its area, but in a spirit of togetherness.
Three Greek Orthodox monks wearing latex gloves carried a rolled up carpet across the stone floor. Another monk wiped an icon with a yellow rag, and others cleaned smudges from the walls with sponges.
A special service was planned for today, to be led by Cardinal Roger Etchegaray, a Vatican envoy who had been involved in negotiations to end the standoff. It will be a service of "praise, redemption and reconciliation" carrying the benediction of Pope John Paul II, the Vatican spokesman, Joaquin Navarro-Valls, said in a prepared statement.
On Friday, after the end of the siege, the basilica had reeked of urine. The stone floor was covered with dirty blankets and mattresses, cigarette lighters and sunglasses.
Those inside had said the Israelis occasionally cut the water supply. There were no toilets inside the basilica, and to get to facilities elsewhere required risking Israeli fire to cross an open courtyard.


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