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  • Lorin Peters

Shanti Sena Stories: Siege of the Church of the Nativity

2002 April 12

Rick first came to CPT Hebron about 1999. Over the next three years, he got to know the commander of the Israeli force occupying Hebron. They were both honest and straightforward men. They grew to respect and to trust each other.

After the Seder suicide bombing of 2002, in which 29 Israelis were killed at their Passover meal, Israel invaded the major cities of Palestine, including Bethlehem. About 200 citizens of Bethlehem, along with about 30 Palestinian Tanzim gunmen, ran across Manger Square and into the Church of the Nativity for refuge.

The IDF (Israeli Defense Force) surrounded the Church, and refused to allow anyone or anything to come near. They imposed a continuous curfew, 24 hours a day, without any breaks for food or medicine, on the four blocks of Palestinians nearest the Church. After a week, phone calls began to report families without food, and babies without milk.

A few days later, Rick happened to encounter the Israeli commander he knew. The commander was with a different unit outside Bethlehem. Rick asked, “What happened to your command? Why are you not with your unit?” The commander responded, “Let’s go for a walk.” When they were alone, he continued. “In three days, something bad is going to happen. I refuse to be part of it.” He paused. “I requested to be transferred. So here I am.” He told Rick enough to understand that the situation was more desperate than anyone realized.

Rick struggled to know what to do. He soon realized he did not have an answer. So he decided to do a deep meditation. He went to a place of solitude, lit a candle, and prayed earnestly, asking God what to do. Then he was silent, slowing down and opening his mind, and just waiting... After a long stillness, a vision formed in his mind. He saw a small group walking, in silence, towards the Church. As they approached, soldiers parted and allowed them to pass.

Rick gathered a group of four CPT volunteers and four priests. As he shared his vision, all began to contribute ideas from their years of experience in Palestine. A plan formed. They would be ‘transparent’. When their preparations were complete, they prayed. Monsignor Moran offered them a final blessing, his whimsical yet serious “blessing of invisibility”.

They carried food and medicine in transparent bags. They walked in complete silence. Once they approached soldiers, Rick made all decisions for the group, without consultation or discussion. There was no media watching the soldiers, because all 500 journalists assigned to the Siege were at a decoy press conference. The soldiers saw only eight silent spirits, and their own consciences.

When they reached the first squad, at the long stairs above the Fountain of Peace, the soldiers blocked their way. Rick stated, quietly, “It’s OK. We’re just going down here.” The soldiers stepped aside.

The second squad stood beside the entrance to Manger Square. Rick simply said, “It’s OK”, and walked slowly forward. The soldiers just watched the group pass.

As the eight crossed the Square, two jeeps roared up. Ten excited soldiers intercepted them, with rifles pointed, just in front of the Church. Sr. Anne spoke, “We just want to visit the birthplace of our crucified Lord.” Then they knelt, prayed, and began to sing “Ubi Caritas”. The soldiers grew silent.

Rick spoke, “This food is for the people trapped in the Church.” The commanding officer replied, “No, we can not allow that.” Rick feels that, if all eight had been trained in CPT, he would have walked forward, and that some would have reached the Church. But more soldiers were running over, and all were probably standing in the crosshairs of Palestinian guns inside the Courtyard of the Church. So Rick felt they should move to the back of the Square, where the soldiers would be safer.

After kneeling and praying a second time, Rick asked, “We are getting phone calls about babies starving in the curfew. May we deliver food to those families?” Several soldiers responded, “Yes, we hear babies crying.” Twelve IDF soldiers volunteered to lead the CPTers and priests to families with babies.

At the decoy press conference, other CPTers announced, once Rick phoned, what had happened. The media all rushed down to Manger Square, right past the eight. Only one French journalist recognized them.

Immediately afterwards, the IDF lifted, for the first time since the siege began 12 days earlier, the curfew on the inner blocks nearest the Church. Two days later, negotiations began between the IDF and the Palestinians inside the Church. The bad thing, which compelled Rick’s commander friend to resign his post, was never carried out.

Apparently, Rick’s vision and their action created a space and a dynamic for the Israelis to negotiate. Yet Rick and his seven companions thought they were just taking food and medicine to those trapped inside the Church. They had no idea of to what else their action would lead. God works in ways we understand only afterwards, if at all.

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