An Israeli tank shell slammed into a church in the city of Jesus' birth Thursday morning, and shrapnel peppered a statue of the Virgin Mary and sliced off the hands and nose, a nun said.

The church compound also houses a hospital and an orphanage. Patients at the hospital were rushed to a safer room during the fighting.

Israeli forces began moving into central Bethlehem from all directions around 1 a.m. and took control of a southern residential section. Residents said soldiers were searching houses and taking up positions in buildings. Tanks were parked 300 yards from the Church of the Nativity, which Christians revere as the birthplace of Christ.

During a barrage of bullets and artillery, a tank shell punched a bowling ball-sized dent in the thick stone facade of the two centuries-old Holy Family Church. The stone blocks were blackened and pockmarked.

The damaged Virgin Mary sculpture, with arms outstretched, remained standing on the roof beside an unlit star decoration and a flag of the Vatican.

No one was injured inside the church compound.

The nun in charge of the compound, Sister Sophie, said an Israeli tank moved to within 50 yards of the church hospital and fired a shell that struck the top of he church. Under the sound of heavy machine gun fire, she rushed hospital patients into a different wing of the building.

Several women had just given birth in the maternity ward.

One of them, Jihad Quraka, said she heard the booms and bullets whizzing during the battle just after she gave birth to a boy, Ali.

"After I gave birth the tanks moved toward Bethlehem," she said. "They started firing in all directions. It was so scary."

With tears in his eyes, her husband Mohammed, 35, held their small crying Ali.

"We are living in a very difficult situation," he said. "But there is always hope. I have a new baby now."