Christians in the West Bank are caught up in the daily bloodshed between Palestinian gunmen and the Israel Defense Forces (IDF). Israel is responding to terrorist attacks on civilians that have killed at least 89 people since January. More than 140 Palestinians in the region have died during the military crackdown, along with 28 Israeli soldiers.

At Bethlehem's historic Church of the Nativity, IDF tanks and soldiers surround the church complex, where 200 armed militants have taken refuge with 60 priests, monks, and nuns. Christian Zionist Malcolm Hedding of the International Christian Embassy Jerusalem denounced the presence of Palestinian fighters inside the church: "It is a premeditated offense by militant outlaws who know it is a place central to our faith and thus would provide them unquestioned refuge."

The church standoff began April 3. On April 10 an Israeli soldier shot and seriously wounded an Armenian monk, Armin Sinanian, 22. Israeli forces treated him at the scene and took him to a hospital. Much of the infrastructure of the city of 150,000 has been destroyed, with homes torn apart and bloody corpses lying in the streets. The IDF allowed few ambulances to move around Bethlehem.

Palestinian Christian leaders who agreed to be interviewed on the record faulted Israel for punishing innocent civilians for the deadly assaults. "We continue to regret the suicide attacks, but these are done by individuals who are a small minority and are not an act of [the] Palestinian Authority or Yasser Arafat," Bishara Awad, president of Bethlehem Bible College (BBC), told Christianity Today. "Why are all the Palestinians being punished?"

Some of the 20,000 IDF troops and reservists in the operation have detained 4,200 Palestinians, including 200 on Israel's wanted list. Samia Khoury of the Palestinian Sabeel Ecumenical Liberation Theology Center in Jerusalem sarcastically refers to the "Israeli Occupation Forces."

"Everybody seems to be a target," Khoury told CT. "The brutality and the devastation [are] beyond imagination."

Open criticism of Arafat and militant groups, however, is almost nonexistent in the West Bank.

Nasim Nour, operations director of World Vision Jerusalem, lives in Beit Jala. Three armored vehicles arrived on his street on April 12, and soldiers began demanding entry to neighbors' houses, searching for terrorists.

Nour, afraid he would be taken away for a horrific 24 hours of questioning, called the Jerusalem office for prayer. After Nour and coworkers prayed on the phone, inexplicably the troops passed by. Nour remains in his village coordinating efforts to get food and medical supplies into Bethlehem and Nablus.

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Meanwhile, officials with the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Jordan say Israeli soldiers used Ramez Ansara, pastor of the Lutheran Church of Hope in Ramallah, as a human shield during a search of the church on April 7. Ramallah is the site of Arafat's compound, which the IDF has surrounded.

Legitimate response

Efraim Goldstein, head of the Jews for Jesus ministry in Israel, has a son in the Israeli army. Goldstein sees the operation as a legitimate response to terrorism.

"My heart is torn in different directions as I pray for the peace of Israel and the safety of my son," Goldstein told CT from Tel Aviv. "Yet I am fully aware that among the Palestinians who are suffering are brothers and sisters in the Messiah Y'shua. My heart and prayers go out for them."

Goldstein sees despair among many Jews who had hoped for peace. "People are searching for answers," Goldstein says, "and we are finding new opportunities for the gospel to be proclaimed in Israel."

Christians make up about 1.5 percent of the West Bank population. Alex Awad, dean of students at BBC, fears there will be even fewer now: "Christian families who never thought of leaving the country will now seek a way out, thus endangering the very presence of Christianity in the city that witnessed the birth of Christ."

Related Elsewhere

For updated coverage of the violence in the West bank, see Yahoo full coverage.

Recent news stories on Church of Nativity siege:

U.S. Expects Deal on Bethlehem - Associated Press (April 30, 2002)
Palestinians leave besieged church - BBC (April 30, 2002)
Palestinians Begin Leaving Church - Chicago Tribune (April 30, 2002)
Large Group Leaves Besieged Bethlehem Church - Reuters (April 30, 2002)
Breakdown in Talks on Standoff at Church - The New York Times (April 30, 2002)

Previous Christianity Today articles on violence in Israel include:

Holy Land Tourism PlungesVisits to Israel fall 45 percent as violence escalates. (March 13, 2002)
Activists well acquainted with terror"Jerusalem Women Speak" tour gains relevance for audience members struggling with new fears. (September 27, 2001)
Palestine's Christians Persist Despite PressuresWith escalating violence in Israel, ministries face a "sad and scary" situation. (September 19, 2001)
Sleepless and 'Terrified', Orphans, Staff Dare to Hope Truce Will HoldAfter three days of fighting in Beit Jala, the Israeli army withdraws but warns it may return. (September 5, 2001)
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Amid Fears for Future, Jerusalem's Churches Embark On Prayers for PeaceWeek of prayer launched with services held in various congregations. (Aug. 22, 2001)
Between a Rock and a Holy SiteMuslims have stepped up their efforts to take control of places revered by Jews and Christians. (Feb. 13, 2001)
Conflict in the Holy LandA timeline of trials for the most contested piece of real estate in the world.
Christmas in Palestine: Hunger and WarStarvation threatens Palestinian villages if U.N. aid continues to be delayed, Vatican official warns. (Dec. 13, 2000)
Between the Temple Mount and a Hard PlacePalestinian Christians want both peace in their villages and justice for their Muslim brothers. (Dec. 5, 2000)
Christmas Plans for Bethlehem ScrappedEscalating violence cancels millennial celebration in town of Christ's birth. (Dec. 1, 2000)
Lutheran Bishop's Appeal from JerusalemReligious leader's letter requests prayer for Christians, Jews, and Palestinians in troubled region. (Nov. 10, 2000)
Fighting Engulfs a Christian Hospital in JerusalemLutherans call conflict on their hospital grounds "an affront" to humanitarian purposes. (Oct. 16, 2000)

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