Recounts Franciscans’ Role in Resolution of the Conflict

ROME, NOV. 13, 2002 ( A new book on the siege of a Bethlehem basilica underscores the key role played by the Franciscan Custody of the Holy Land.

The authors of “The Siege of the Nativity” were eyewitnesses of the crisis at the Basilica of the Nativity and saw the part played by the Franciscan Custody to resolve the standoff.

The book, presented in Rome and published by Ponte alle Grazie, recounts the 39 anguishing days of the siege of the basilica, from April 2 to May 10, when the Israeli army surrounded the complex where some 200 Palestinians had entrenched themselves.

The authors, Giuseppe Bonavolonta and Marc Innaro, correspondents for RAI (Italian State Television) in the Middle East, interlace their testimony with pages of the diary written by Father Ibrahim Faltas, custodian of the basilica.

“I stayed inside the basilica the first two days of the crisis and Giuseppe Bonavolonta was outside,” Innaro told Vatican Radio. On April 2, when the reporters were trapped in the middle of the battle, they telephoned Father Faltas.

“‘Open the door for us, Ibrahim, they are coming toward us, we are blocked, we cannot go back, the Israelis have fired at us,'” they said to him.

“‘Yes, come, but be careful, because they are firing here,'” Father Ibrahim answered.

“We thought that was the safest place,” Innaro continued. “A few hours later, with the same reasoning, 200 armed Palestinians, knocked the doors down with Kalashnikov bursts, and entered and sought refuge there from the Israeli army that was occupying the city.

“From then on we saw in the Franciscans of the Holy Land, in their mediation between the sides, the face and work of St. Francis, going from one trench to another only with a message of humanity, of hope.”

“And, precisely, in the name of humanity, the Franciscans succeeded in what they intended: to save human lives by trying to go out to the Israelis and Palestinians,” the journalist revealed.

Giuseppe Bonavolonta added: “There is something fundamental in the Franciscan message. Great revolutions, great movements of ideas have always led to explosions of intolerance. The real message is that of the man who succeeds, precisely, in going from one barricade to another, who succeeds in carrying out his own commitment … as a man of peace.”

Six months after the crisis, the situation continues to be difficult. “People are still badly off,” Father Ibrahim Faltas, the basilica custodian, said. “There is no curfew, the Israeli army is not inside the city. But people cannot go to work; they have no work. There is unemployment.”

“The city is blocked, there are no tourists or pilgrims, and 80% of Bethlehem’s population works in the tourism sector,” the priest added. “They cannot go to Israel to work. The hope is that the international community will do everything possible to resolve the problem of Palestinians and Israelis.”

In this context, the siege of the basilica represented a sign of the suffering of the whole region, explained the spokesman of the Custody of the Holy Land, Father David Jaeger. He spoke at the presentation of the book together with Father Giovanni Battistelli, Custodian of the Holy Land.

“The concrete case of Bethlehem,” Father Jaeger said, “once again made manifest the need and urgency for international juridical protection of this area, already defined in 1947 by the United Nations as a ‘corpus separatum’: a special, internationally guaranteed statute, so desired by the U.N. as well as the Church, especially for the Holy Places.”

Father Jaeger suggested that this could be carried out, for example, through a “multilateral treaty to which Israelis and Palestinians adhere, but also a large number of more European, American and other nations that will help to guarantee its observance.”