The Vatican and the Standoff at the Church of the Nativity

, March 15, 2004

No. 515     22 Adar 5764 / 15 March 2004

On April 1, 2002, some 200 armed Palestinians entered one of the most important shrines and holy places in Christianity – the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem marking the place where Jesus was born – and remained inside until May 12.

The major preoccupation of the Vatican officials appeared to be for the stones of the ancient basilica, not for the local people and even less for Israel’s need to screen the Palestinians who fled into the church and arrest those who had been involved in killing Israeli citizens.

In order to preserve good relations with the Palestinians, no reconsecration ceremony was held at the end of the long occupation by the Palestinian gunmen, as if no desecration had occurred. For more than a month, all official criticism by the Catholic Church was addressed only against Israel.

After the Palestinians left the church, American agents collected tens of assault rifles left behind by the gunmen under the terms of their release. Israeli officers said their experts had found 40 “explosive devices,” including booby traps.

The huge Catholic machinery was spreading strong anti-Israel propaganda in various degrees. Catholics in Israel are represented by a Latin Patriarch who is openly and publicly anti-Israel and pro-Palestinian.

Armed Palestinians Enter a Christian Holy Site

On April 1, 2002, some 200 armed Palestinians entered the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem and remained inside until May 12. The church is considered one of the most important shrines and holy places in Christianity, built over the grotto in which, according to tradition, Jesus was born, as it is written: “[Mary] placed him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn” (Luke 2:7). The birth of Jesus in Bethlehem is probably linked to the fact that King David was born in the same town, and the genealogy of Jesus makes him a descendant of David (Matthew 1:1-17). Queen Helena, the mother of Emperor Constantine, dedicated the first church on May 31, 339, but most of what can be seen today dates from the Crusader renovation of the church.

Like the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, the Church of the Nativity is shared among the Greek Orthodox, who hold the major part of it, the Armenians, and the Catholics, represented by the Franciscans as Custodians of the Holy Land (Custodia Francisca Terra Sancta – CFTS).

The forced entrance of armed Palestinians into the church created an international crisis, with the Holy See leading a campaign of unprecedented criticism against the State of Israel. Yet the Israel Ministry of Foreign Affairs played only a minor role in negotiations with the clergy inside the church, as the issue was dealt with almost exclusively by the Israel Defense Forces and its special team for negotiating the liberation of hostages.

On April 8, Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs Michael Melchior convened a meeting in his office with Deputy Minister of Defense Dalia Rabin-Filosof and the heads of the various churches involved, but the IDF team continued to be responsible for the negotiations, and it was seemingly unaware of the strong protests of the Holy See. In fact, the Israeli press refrained from reporting most of the declarations of Vatican officials and the pope on this issue.

A particularly negative role was played, and not for the first time, by Msgr. Michel Sabbah, the Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem, who declared that the entering Palestinians were not armed, were willingly accepted into the church, and were given asylum.

The major preoccupation of the Vatican officials appeared to be for the stones of the ancient basilica, not for the local people and even less for Israel’s need to screen the Palestinians who fled into the church and arrest those who had been involved in killing Israeli citizens. The Vatican’s Fundamental Agreement with the State of Israel, signed in Jerusalem on December 30, 1993,1 was almost forgotten except for Vatican accusations that Israel had infringed it.

The old hostility of the Franciscans towards the Latin Patriarchate was perhaps one of the reasons that brought the CFTS to publish a declaration on April 3 denying Msgr. Sabbah’s statement. The CFTS stated clearly that “the problematic situation created in and around the Basilica is the result of the violent invasion effected by armed men who thereafter barricaded themselves there.”2 The word “Palestinian” was carefully avoided, but the contradiction of Msgr. Sabbah was clear.

One would have expected that the Catholic Church would consider the “violent invasion” sufficient proof of the desecration of the church by the Palestinians. Father Jaeger, spokesman of the CFTS, said, “when the battle started, the doors of the Basilica were closed. Armed Palestinians fired at the locks, entered the Basilica, and barricaded themselves in the compound.”3 However, in order to preserve good relations with the Palestinians, no reconsecration ceremony was held at the end of the long occupation by the Palestinian gunmen, as if no desecration had occurred. For more than a month, all official criticism by the Catholic Church was addressed only against Israel.

The Stand of the Holy See

On April 2, the Holy See expressed “growing concern” over the latest news from the Holy Land. Vatican spokesman Joaquin Navarro-Valls told reporters that the Holy Father “is continually following the developments of the tragic situation in the Middle East.” The Nuncio Archbishop Pietro Sambi had been encouraged to “take timely diplomatic initiatives.”4

According to a declaration by Joaquin Navarro-Valls, on April 2, Archbishop Jean-Louis Tauran, Secretary for Relations with States, summoned Israeli Ambassador Yosef Neville Lamdan, and the following day Ambassador James Nicholson of the United States, to discuss the “dramatic situation in Bethlehem.” The position of the Holy See included an “unequivocal condemnation of terrorism”; “disapproval of the conditions of injustice and humiliation imposed on the Palestinian people, as well as reprisals and retaliations, which only make the sense of frustration and hatred grow”; and the “duty for the parties in the conflict to protect the Holy places, which are very significant for the three monotheistic religions and the patrimony of all of humanity.”5

Archibshop Tauran said on April 10: “[The pope] has, on several occasions, spelled out his position: mutual respect of both parties’ legitimate aspirations; the application of international agreements; withdrawal from the occupied territories; and an international statute ensuring access for all parties to the holy places of Jerusalem.”

The Poison of Msgr. Sabbah

Msgr. Michel Sabbah was very active with daily anti-Israel statements. On April 2, he asked the heads of other churches in Jerusalem to sign an urgent appeal to President Bush, saying: “We appeal to you to stop immediately the inhuman tragedy that is taking place in this Holy Land in our Palestinian towns and villages. Only this morning the Israeli tanks have reached the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, the City of our Lord Jesus Christ. There is wanton indiscriminate killing. Very many people are deprived of water, electricity, food supplies and basic medical needs. Many of our religious institutions have been invaded and damaged.”6

As an example of “wanton indiscriminate killings,” we may recall that on April 2, Israel Radio reported at noon that a Salesian priest had been killed in the Church of Saint Mary in Bethlehem. Italian Radio added that the priest had been killed at the altar while saying Mass. Reuters reported the source of the report as the Catholic Missionary News Agency. A look at their Internet site on that day revealed that in the afternoon they had published just one sentence (in Italian) that the priest, Salesian Father Giacomo Amataeis, was alive in the Saint Brigida convent.7 Archbishop Sambi denied the killing in an interview with Israel Radio that same evening, but for many days the official Osservatore Romano continued to carry the news of the killed priest (who was alive).

The Pax Christi organization, chaired by Msgr. Sabbah, published frequent sta

Prof. Sergio Itzhak Minerbi

Dr. Sergio Itzhak Minerbi served as Ambassador of Israel to the Ivory Coast and to the EEC, Belgium and Luxembourg. He served as Senior Lecturer at the Institute for Contemporary Jewry at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem and Visiting Professor at the Haifa University. He is the author of The Eichmann Trial Diary, New York: Enigma Books, 2011. He has also published The Vatican and Zionism (Oxford University Press, 1990).