As Church of the Nativity standoff continues, Christians offer prayers
Where ox and ass once greeted the birth of Jesus, Palestinian and Israeli guns continue to aim at each other. The standoff at Bethlehem's Church of the Nativity is in its eleventh day today, and prospects for a peaceful conclusion are bleak. Last night, negotiations broke down—the 200 or so Palestinians say they won't leave the church compound until the Israeli Defense Forces withdraw, and Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon says the military won't withdraw "until the terrorists give themselves up." (This is, reports the Associated Press, an apparent easing of an earlier stance, where Israel said the Palestinians would have to surrender directly to Israeli soldiers.)

The New York Times reports what it's like inside the church area, based on three telephone interviews.

A dozen wounded Palestinian gunmen are being cared for by a nun in the back of the grotto. … Palestinian fighters walk around the basilica with assault rifles slung across their backs, sleeping on pews or on the floor when not on watch duty. And the monks and nuns generally keep to themselves, venturing from their monasteries into the church itself only two to three times a day to check the holy site, light oil lamps and conduct services. … Explosions and gunfire regularly surround the church, the monks said. And today a whiff of tear gas blew in.

The clergy say they're not hostages, but the Israeli government says they're not able to speak freely. The clergy also said yesterday that food will only last another day or two. And they're concerned about the shooting of Armen Sinanian, a 22-year-old Armenian monk whom an Israeli soldier apparently mistook for a gunman.

Times reporter David Rohde ...

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