The Saga of the Siege

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Cleaning up the Church of the Nativity

The Church of the Nativity, one of the world's oldest working churches, has never been an especially peaceful place. The holy men who run it — Greek Orthodox, Armenian Orthodox and Roman Catholic clerics — bicker over who gets to clean which piece of sacred wall, who can walk in which aisle. The theft in 1847 of the silver star that was meant to mark the precise place where Jesus was born is thought to have helped start the Crimean War. Seized and besieged by a host of armies over the centuries, the church has even inspired bickering among scholars, who argue about whether Jesus was born here at all. Many believe he was actually born in Nazareth, not in Bethlehem, and certainly not in some little manger in the cool grotto over which the Holy Roman Emperors built a shrine to their deepest hopes.

But holy places still have special power, this church not least among them. Muslims are specifically ensured the right to pray in the Church of the Nativity, a privilege dating back to A.D. 638. Israeli soldiers, swarming into Bethlehem last month as part of the campaign to crush the machinery of Palestinian terror, surrounded the church compound but did not storm it. Two hundred forty gunmen and bystanders took refuge in the church but in time agreed to leave it. The end of the siege last week, after long negotiations that nearly went off a cliff several times, brought relief to officials on both sides: to the Palestinians, who had feared a violent denouement, and to the Israelis, who were increasingly embarrassed by the presence of their troops around one of Christianity's most venerable shrines.

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The church bells rang out at last on Friday morning, as the sun came up and the men left the church that had been their haven for five weeks. They had to crumple low to pass through the squat Gate of Humility, a large door reduced to a tiny entryway during the time of the Turkish Empire to prevent looters from driving carts inside the church to carry off their booty. Some of the men waved and cheered a victory; others knelt to pray. A man with bullet wounds came out on a stretcher. All passed through metal detectors. U.S. embassy officials later found more than 90 rifles and other guns left behind, and Israeli troops said they found 40 explosive devices. From the rooftops around the adjoining Manger Square, relatives called out "God is most great!" and shouted to sons and brothers they had not seen in weeks and might not see again. The 13 gunmen most wanted by Israel were flown to Cyprus, on their way into exile in Europe and possibly Canada. Twenty-six others, considered less dangerous, were handed over to Palestinian authorities in the Gaza Strip, while the rest of the captives, excluding the clerics, were interrogated by the Israelis, then released.

That outcome had taken weeks of negotiation. When Israeli and Palestinian authorities consented to the deportations as a way to defuse the standoff, Israeli hard-liners and Palestinians of every stripe complained that it was a sellout. But the situation had grown desperate. The city of Bethlehem had been in lockdown since April 2; food inside the church compound had virtually run out. Eight Palestinians had been killed by Israeli gunfire, and an Armenian monk had been wounded by an Israeli sniper.

All last week those stuck inside thought their ordeal might be close to an end, only to hear that the negotiations had faltered. Finally, rumor of a breakthrough came late Thursday night. Candles flickered over the carved doorways and limestone columns, over the scraps of mosaics and the filthy mattresses spread across the floor of the 4th century sanctuary. A top gunman from al Aqsa Martyrs Brigades, Jihad Ja'ara, spoke with a TIME reporter by cell phone. "Is it true that an agreement has been reached?" Ja'ara asked. He was more eager than most to make it out; the gunshot wound in his leg had become infected, and it hurt. "Alhamdulillah," Ja'ara said when he heard the deal was done: Thank God. "We're going to get out of here!" he yelled through the nave, and his words echoed in the dark. Others began to chant, "It's over! It