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Bethlehem Christians give thanks

Christians have been taking part in special services at Bethlehem's Church of the Nativity, the first since the siege of Palestinian gunmen by Israeli troops there ended on Friday.

Chanting Greek Orthodox priests led their spiritual leader, Jerusalem Patriarch Irineos I, in a colourful procession to the church from the edge of Manger Square on Sunday morning.

Latin Patriarch of the Holy Monseigner Land Michel Sabbah said there could be no peace until the Israelis ended their occupation of the Palestinian territories.

"My message today is to the Israelis: you are pushing the Palestinians to the suicide. You are committing suicide against yourselves," he said.

The BBC's Malcolm Brabant says there is genuine relief that the siege in Bethlehem, where more than 200 Palestinians were surrounded by Israeli troops in the Church of the Nativity, had been resolved peacefully.

Preparations for Sunday's services began just after dawn, after the keepers of the holy site cleared away all the waste resulting from the five-week stand-off.

Correspondents who entered the church after the siege found conditions there to be squalid, but there appeared to be no major damage.

Israel pulled out of Bethlehem on Friday after 13 Palestinian militants, who have been exiled from the West Bank under a deal to end the siege, arrived in Cyprus.

The withdrawal in effect ended Israel's military offensive in the West Bank, which was launched on 29 March in response to a suicide bomb attack in which 28 Israelis died as they celebrated the Jewish Passover.


13 May 2002