BETHLEHEM, West Bank – The priest in charge of the Church of the Nativity left the besieged compound Sunday for the first time in a month so he could celebrate Mass at a nearby church.
The Rev. Ibrahim Faltas and another monk from inside the church were escorted by Palestinian and Israeli vehicles to St. Anthony's Church, about 1 miles from the Church of the Nativity. They returned a few hours later.
More than 200 Palestinians, including about 30 gunmen, took cover in the compound April 2 in a hail of gunfire during an Israeli invasion, part of a large-scale West Bank military operation to crush Palestinian militias behind deadly attacks on Israelis.
Negotiations to end the 27-day standoff at the Church of the Nativity continued Sunday without agreement, but both sides said the talks would continue.
The Palestinians have proposed that the militants inside the church be taken to the Gaza Strip, while the Israelis have called for them to be exiled or to stand trial in Israel.
"The Israelis are sticking to their stand and we are also sticking to our stand and we are trying to find a solution," Palestinian negotiator Salah Taameri said.
The Israeli military said some new ideas were raised, but gave no details.
Faltas had refused to leave the compound while the siege continued and has been unable to hold services in the historic church, built on the spot revered as the site of Jesus' birth.
On Sunday, however, Faltas arranged with the Israeli and Palestinian authorities to be allowed to lead the service at St. Anthony's Church. The service was held for the clergy living on the church ground, but about 25 neighborhood people defied an area-wide curfew to attend the Mass.
"It is the first time in history the Church of the Nativity has been shut down and the people haven't been able to reach it," Faltas said afterward.
He also rejected Israel's claim that the clerics inside the church are hostages of the armed Palestinians.
"How can we be hostages and be free to go out and then return to the church?" he said. "We agreed to stay in the church for the sake of peace."
Faltas said monks faced the same conditions inside the church as the rest of the people there: little food or electricity and a lack of water. Still, he said there was hope the crisis would end soon.
"The people inside the church still have the hope to return home safely," he said. "These people, who took the church as a shelter to protect their lives, have to leave safely and peacefully."
In a separate incident, a group of international peace activists were prevented by the Israeli army from delivering food to the church.
About 20 young people stepped over a barrier erected by the army across Manger Square in front of the church and sat on the ground next to their food parcels.
Soldiers picked up the foreigners and food and carried them out of the square.
In other areas, the army lifted a curfew for Palm Sunday service, marking the start of the Easter week observed by Orthodox Christian churches.