BETHLEHEM, West Bank – Hopeful of holding Sunday services, monks and local Christians on Saturday scrubbed and swept up trash left behind after the 39-day siege of the Church of the Nativity ended.
Remarkably, the church didn’t suffer much permanent damage, but the volunteers swept, cleared out trash and prayed together, relieved that the standoff between Palestinian gunmen and Israeli soldiers was finally over.
The top Roman Catholic clergyman in the Holy Land, Latin Patriarch Michel Sabbah, visited the church on Saturday marking the spot where tradition holds Jesus was born. In the grotto, a few steps down from the basilica, he knelt and kissed a silver star that Christians believe marks the birthplace.
In a rarely witnessed scene of unity, Sabbah and clergymen from other denominations, including Greek Orthodox and Syrian, held hands in the grotto and intoned the Lord's Prayer in Arabic.
"I am happy that the church will be open again for services," Sabbah later told reporters. "Our message is peace, and we hope that this church will be an address for peace, justice and determination."
The church take-over ended Friday when 13 militants were deported to Cyprus and 26 others were sent to the Gaza Strip, resulting in the withdrawal of Israeli troops from Bethlehem and relief for residents, confined to their homes under round-the-clock curfews since April 2.
In the basilica, monks and local Christian volunteers scrubbed the ancient stone floor, wiped smudges from the walls with sponges and carried cardboard boxes filled with trash into the courtyard.
If the church is ready, Sunday service will be led by Cardinal Roger Etchegaray, a Vatican envoy who had been involved in negotiations to end the standoff. It will be a service of "praise, redemption and reconciliation," bringing the benediction of Pope John Paul II, the Vatican spokesman, Joaquin Navarro-Valls, said in a statement issued in Rome.
On Friday, after the end of the siege, the basilica had reeked of urine. The stone floor was covered with dirty blankets and mattresses and large cooking pots. A stove and gas canisters for cooking stood to one side of the central aisle. Leftover food covered an altar in the Armenian section.
Those inside the church had complained the Israelis occasionally cut the water supply and water was scarce during the siege. There were no toilets inside the basilica and to get to facilities elsewhere required crossing an open courtyard, with the risk of Israeli sniper fire.
Yet the 4th Century basilica emerged from the siege with little permanent damage.
The panes of several arched windows near the ceiling were broken. A 12th-century mosaic near the ceiling, which one priest had said was hit by bullets, appeared in good condition. Several rooms in the Greek Orthodox section and Franciscan study hall next to the church were gutted by fire; Israel and the Palestinians accused each other of sparking the flames. A statue of the Virgin Mary in the courtyard took a bullet in the shoulder.
One priest complained the foreigners had desecrated the church by smoking and drinking alcohol.
A Bethlehem Christian, 18-year-old Sandy Shaheen, was in tears as she looked at the interior of the basilica Friday. "This is the place where Jesus was born. I can't believe this is the house of God — just look at it," said Shaheen, who worships at the Church of the Nativity every Sunday.
Father Nicholas, a Franciscan priest from Mexico, denied Israeli claims the several dozen nuns and priests who stayed in the compound during the standoff were hostages. "We were there by choice," Nicholas said. Priests and nuns have said they remained to protect the site.
Father Nicholas said the gunmen kept their weapons with them always, and in the first days took candelabras, icons, candles and "anything that looked like gold." Some of the valuables were later returned, he said.
Reporters saw a cupboard filled with food — more than 20 bags of lentils and rice, cans of beans and cooking oil. For extended periods during the siege, the gunmen had said food was running low and those inside subsisted on one meal a day. Some said they had resorted to making soup from lemon leaves growing in the courtyard. Some foreign activists claimed they had eaten grass. It was not clear whether those accounts were misleading, or whether Israel sent in more food in the last days.
Israeli bomb experts swept the church and found 40 explosive devices. Experts neutralized 25 devices and an American bomb squad with sniffer dogs disarmed the rest, according to a military source.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.