- The Washington Times - Saturday, May 4, 2002

BETHLEHEM, West Bank An American peace activist who managed to slip into Bethlehem's besieged Church of the Nativity yesterday denied Israeli claims that Palestinian gunmen were holding clergy hostage in the building.
Kristen Schurr, 33, a free-lance writer from New York, also said that only two or three dozen of some 180 Palestinians in the church along with 30 clergy were armed, many of them being Palestinian police.
Miss Schurr, nine other pro-Palestinian peace activists, and a press photographer managed to enter the church, which is built over what Christians believe was Jesus' birthplace, on Thursday, taking in food for the occupants.
Nobody is being held hostage inside, she insisted.
Describing her first night there, Miss Schurr told Agence France-Presse by mobile phone, "We slept in the base of the church, in the grotto where Jesus was born. It was a bit cold, but [the Palestinians] gave us a blanket, a pillow and a mat to lie on."
Miss Schurr said she has visited the entire complex, including the Franciscan and Orthodox convents damaged by fire on Wednesday. She was guided by Palestinians, who showed where to tread to avoid Israeli snipers.
She said the head of a statue of the Virgin Mary inside the cloister at the entrance of St. Catherine's Church, adjoining the Church of the Nativity, was chipped by a bullet and there were other signs of shooting.
Miss Schurr had seen no sign of the booby traps the Israelis say the Palestinians about 30 of whom are described as "senior terrorists" had placed at the entrances to the church complex.
She is accompanied by four other U.S. citizens, including a photographer for the Los Angeles Times, by two Swedes, a Canadian woman, an Irish woman, a Dane and a Briton.
An Agence France-Presse photographer on the scene said he saw the pacifists, loaded down with food, jump the coils of barbed wire and bolt across Manger Square to the church, where the door was opened as they approached on Thursday.
Yesterday, as the siege entered its second month, Miss Schurr said she attended three services held by the three religious orders that have custody of the church, including celebrations ahead of Orthodox Easter tomorrow.
"They sang. There were candles everywhere. It was beautiful," she said.
But Miss Schurr said that in 24 hours she had swallowed nothing more than a cup of tea. "For several days, [the besieged Palestinians] had been eating boiled leaves from the garden," she said.

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