- The Washington Times - Monday, May 6, 2002

BETHLEHEM, West Bank Officials said last night that a deal has been struck to end the 5-week-old standoff at the Church of the Nativity, providing an Orthodox Easter gift to the several dozen nuns and monks who have been stuck inside with more than 100 Palestinian gunmen.
Palestinians and church sources close to the U.S.-led negotiations both confirmed a deal, though the Israeli military still was seeking to clarify certain points late last night.
The agreement, similar in some respects to the deal that ended Yasser Arafat's confinement in Ramallah, will end the ordeal of the Christian clerics who have been in the church since it was overrun by Palestinian gunmen fleeing from an Israeli offensive.
A church source said that under the deal, at least seven and as many as 13 Palestinians will be sent into exile in Italy as soon as transportation can be arranged through Jordan.
Another 39 Palestinians wanted by Israel will be allowed to go to Gaza, the source said, and 89 others will go free. Nobody will be taken into custody.
The source, who has been in contact with two American envoys brokering the talks, said the United States had been eager to secure a deal before Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon meets President Bush at the White House this week.
He said the sides originally had agreed on the exile of seven men to Italy but the talks hit a hitch when the Israelis began insisting on 13.
The Associated Press quoted Israeli Defense Ministry spokesman Yarden Vatikay saying, "There is no agreement yet. They are negotiating our demands for people to be deported."
But Hassan Abed Rabbo, a senior Fatah leader in Bethlehem, told AP that a deal had been struck calling for "six to eight" Palestinians to go to Italy and "more than 30" to Gaza.
Israeli forces began pulling their tanks away from Manger Square surrounding the church and removing wrecked cars even before the negotiations were completed. The Vatican and the European Union also participated in the talks.
The deal came as Orthodox Christian congregations around the world prayed at Easter services for the safety of the 30 to 40 clergy members inside the church, many of whom are elderly.
The clerics, long accustomed to living alongside the bitter animosities between Palestinians and Israelis, have been largely silent as the two sides acted out their confrontation over the past five weeks.
"Concern for their safety is justified," said the Rev. David Jaeger, spokesman for the Franciscan office that has custody over all Christian sites in the Holy Land. "They are enduring a great deal of deprivation."
The question, for so many people, has been why.
The Israelis said the clerics were being held hostage by the militia members inside.
The Palestinians said they were volunteering to protect the gunmen against armed aggressors.
And the religious hierarchy said that clerics had volunteered to stay on to safeguard the sacred church, which Christians believe is built on the site where Jesus was born.
Brother Ibrahim Faltas, a monk who briefly left Manger Square yesterday to celebrate Mass at a small chapel nearby, dismissed Israeli claims that he and his companions were held hostage. "Absolutely not. I am free, I am out of the church," he told Reuters news agency.
The young monk, who has been frequently photographed carrying stretchers out of the church, later returned to Manger Square.
Roughly three dozen representatives of the Armenian, Greek Orthodox and Roman Catholic faiths are inside the church. Israeli and religious leaders refuse to say exactly how many are there out of unspecified security concerns.
Three Armenian clerics were escorted from the church by Israeli soldiers two weeks ago, after flying a sign that said "Help Us."
After the Israeli army rescued the clerics, it summoned reporters to an isolated roadblock for a news conference that presumably would focus on their misery inside the church.
"They reported to us robbing, looting, money stolen from the church by terrorists, golden crosses broken," Israeli Defense Forces spokeswoman Capt. Sharon Feingold said that afternoon.
But the clerics never met the press. Reporters who trailed them to the Armenian Patriarchy were met by Bishop Arrs Shirvanian, who said categorically that there was no looting and no mistreatment.


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