- The Washington Times - Wednesday, May 8, 2002

The Middle East is a most unusual region, often with rules of its own. Double, triple or even quadruple standards quite often reflect the world's responses to events in the Holy Land a country with Christian, Jewish, Muslim, as well as, Bahai religious shrines.

Compare the Sept. 28, 2000, visit of Israel's Ariel Sharon to Jerusalem's Temple Mount with the more recent April 2, 2002, invasion by some 50 armed Palestinian gunmen of Christianity's Church of Nativity in Bethlehem.

On Sept. 28, 2000, Israel's current prime minister, accompanied by security guards, made a site visit to where once a Jewish temple stood, and which is now occupied by the Omar (Dome of the Rock) and al-Aqsa Mosques. It was that visit to the plaza in front of Islam's third holiest shrine, from which by tradition the Prophet Mohammed departed to heaven, that Yasser Arafat, the head of the Palestinian Authority, claimed a sufficient provocation to justify the ongoing Palestinian uprising's appropriation of the al-Aqsa Intifada name.

By asserting the al-Aqsa name, Yasser Arafat has deliberately sought to enlist the support of Muslims throughout the world for his anti-Israel war of terror.

A year and a half later, on April 2, 2002, some 200 Palestinians, including 50 armed fighters, entered and occupied the Church of Nativity in Bethlehem, one of the holiest shrines of Christianity. The Christian guardians of the shrine, subsequently, shared with the media news that they had been "expecting" Palestinians to seek refuge in the church, which is believed to be the birthplace of Jesus.

Many Christians and other religionists throughout the world have considered the armed occupation of the Church of Nativity and its military use a desecration of one of Christianity's major houses of worship. But to date no official Christian outcry has been heard about this militant invasion.

No doubt that the armed Palestinian could not have entered this Christian shrine without the knowledge and tacit approval of the chairman of the Palestinian Authority. Was this takeover of the Church of Nativity intended by Yasser Arafat, once more as an added provocation, to inflame the Middle East conflict and escalate it from a Palestinian Intifada into a tripartite Christian, Jewish and Muslim conflagration?

To further incite the Israeli military forces surrounding the Bethlehem church, the Palestinian gunmen had continued to engage in gun battles with the Israeli troops and fires were set in three places inside the church complex last week.

What are 50 Muslim armed belligerents doing within this sacred Christian church? Throughout history, churches, mosques and other places of worship have frequently provided refuge to the tired, the hungry, the blameless, and the persecuted. Well known is the Mosaic Code's establishment of six cities of refuge within the land of Israel to which those who took human life without malice could escape from the victim's vengeful relatives.

In ancient Babylon, Greece, and Rome, as well as in the Arabian Peninsula, escaped slaves, debtors, political refugees and others deserving such relief were granted shelter in the temples of the various deities.

The rise of Christianity, whose own adherents were subjected to centuries of persecution before the Roman Empire's recognition of their religion, gave renewed support to the institution of asylum. In 313 AD, Constantine authorized churches to grant shelter to fugitives. The Christian Councils of Toledo (in 638 and 681 AD) broadened the categories of those entitled to protection and established a safe haven around churches a radius of 35 steps within which the seizure of offenders was prohibited.

To this day, the institution of shelter in churches, foreign embassies, and like facilities, produces a favorable echo throughout the world. But bursting into such hallowed shrines with guns and occupying them with the force of arms has been considered one of the greatest profanities and desecrations of these houses of shelter.

Before the United Nations considers again the question of whether a U.N. investigation team should be sent to look into the alleged Jenin massacre, the reports of which are contested and conflicting, it would be appropriate for them to first consider the siege in Bethlehem.

Palestinian gunmen, contrary to all traditional religious and international law standards, not only desecrated one of the Holy Land's major shrines, but apparently sought also to escalate the existing Israeli-Palestinian conflict into a greater multireligious, international conflagration.

No justifiable grounds can ever be advanced for the presence of armed gunmen in the Church of Nativity or any other house of worship Christian, Jewish, Muslim or otherwise.

Strong efforts must be undertaken, therefore, to convince the chairman of the Palestinian Authority, and those under him, that whatever legal standing they have in the international community will be seriously and permanently eroded unless they demonstrate their willingness and ability to conform to the minimum standards of the Geneva Conventions of 1947 and the Protocols of 1949 which require that civilians be protected in all instances of armed conflicts. Article 57, specifically, requires that combatants "do everything feasible to verify that the objectives to be attacked are neither civilian nor civilian objects."

Article 58, further, requires warring parties to "protect the civilian population against the dangers resulting from military operations."

On top of these Geneva requirements, several special provisions have long existed in humanitarian law, contained in the Hague Convention of 1907 and 1954, regarding the particular protection of religious sites during periods of armed conflict.

Both the provisions for the protection of civilians and the protection of religious sites have thus far been repeatedly violated by Mr. Arafat's gunmen. All such violations must cease immediately. Too many explosive political, ethnic and economic issues exist in the Middle East, and throughout the world, to permit religious conflicts to further escalate into a worldwide religious war an Armageddon, of which no one can be a winner.

Nicholas Kittrie is Distinguished University Professor of Law at the American University and chairman of the United Nations Alliance of NGOs on Crime Prevention and Criminal Justice. He is the author of "Rebels With A Cause: The Minds and Morality of Political Offenders" (Westview, 2000).

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