Church of the Nativity (Bethlehem)

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The Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem is one of the oldest continuously operating churches in the world. The original structure was built by St. Macarius I of Jerusalem at the direction of Constantine the Great following the First Ecumenical Council in 325. That structure was burnt down in the Samaritan revolt of 529.

It is administered by a coalition of Roman Catholic and Orthodox clerics. Tradition records that the church was built over Jesus' birthplace, and it is held as sacred by both Christians and Muslims.

It is actually a combination of two churches, with a basement where many believe Jesus was born:

  • The main section (the basilica) now in the care of the Orthodox Church of Jerusalem. It is designed like a generic Roman basilica. With three aisles and an apse. Although presently in a state of decay, it once featured golden mosaics covering the side walls, and a Roman style floor (since covered over). It also features a large iconostasis, and a complex array of lamps throughout the entire church.
  • The adjoining Roman Catholic church, which is done in a more modern Gothic revival style, and has since been further modernized according to the liturgical trends after Vatican II.
  • The underground cave, which features the altar over the place Jesus was said to have been born. The exact spot is marked by a hole in the middle of a silver star, surrounded by silver lamps. This altar is neutral although it features primarily Armenian Orthodox design.

2002 incident

The church was in the news briefly as the third millennium began, when armed Palestinians took refuge in it. A standoff ensued starting on April 2, 2002 with Israeli occupation forces which put the building under siege.

Press reports were often unclear as to the status of civilians (including a number of clergy and monastics) inside the compound, alternately saying that they were free to go or being held inside by either of the two sides (Arab hostage takers and Israeli soldiers). Press reports indicated that the Israeli forces permitted unarmed civilians to leave but that they shot and killed one or more persons who upon leaving the church refused to submit to a weapons frisk.

The 38-day stand-off came to an end on May 9 when the Palestinians inside agreed to have 13 suspected fighters among them deported to several different countries.

See also