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Interview with Charles Sennott, Author

Aired May 10, 2002 - 10:41   ET


LEON HARRIS, CNN ANCHOR: We want to take you back now to Bethlehem where we -- as we have been reporting this morning that siege there over the Church of the Nativity has been resolved, and we are just now getting able to get in for the first time and get a look at what the scene is like inside that church.

You are seeing here some of the first pictures that have ever come out of that facility after 39 days of siege, if you will, and we are joined now by Charles Sennott who is there in Bethlehem -- and as I understand it, Mr. Sennott, you are an author, correct?


HARRIS: And you are there, are you inside the church right now?

SENNOTT: Yes. I came in with the Franciscans to help me with my book a lot (ph) "The Body and the Blood," it is called, and they allowed me to come in to see this damage. I would say...

HARRIS: I am sorry -- I hate -- I am sorry to interrupt you, but who better to give us a description than an author. Give us your eye here, and walk us through what you are seeing.

SENNOTT: Sure. I mean, what we have seen is that the damage is not extensive, not at all. I would say there is no structural damage, no serious damage, but certainly the basilica is quite a mess. People have been sleeping in there, obviously, for 38 days, so there are cushions on the floor, and old blankets, and a very horrible smell from people living here for a very long time without any efficient plumbing and things like that. There are eating utensils, and tin cans, and trash from this ordeal of these people having to be holed up inside here.

But no really significant, you know, terrible damage to the church, thankfully. Although I will point out that, you know, everyone will remember there was this fire on April 8, and I have just been up into the place where that fire happened. That is the Parish Hall of the Franciscan Parish, St. Catherine's, and the Parish Hall was just gutted by fire.

HARRIS: And that is actually in the compound, but not necessarily inside the church, correct? How far away from the church is that? SENNOTT: Correct. It is about 60 -- maybe 50 steps. 60 feet or so from the actual basilica, but it is still within the compound of the Church of Nativity, and the Parish Hall had a brand new organ in it that the priests had been putting together, and that organ is completely destroyed as were many of their clerical garb, and books, and some things used in the mass, for example, and things that would be kept in a parish hall were destroyed. But they are saying that the destruction of that appears to have come from an Israeli kind of commando unit. An anti-terrorist unit that tried to penetrate into there. The Franciscan priests are saying that, because they found some Israeli military gear that was left behind, so they are operating on the theory that Israelis tried to insert there. We, of course, don't know if that's true...


HARRIS: If you can hold on right there -- Mr. Sennott, if you can hold on right there, let me ask you at this particular point, this would be a good point -- good time to bring up some allegations that have been laid out by the Israelis who have gone in there. They have said in reports we have heard this morning that they have found, they found a number of explosive devices in there, and they found what apparently were booby traps.

Do you see any evidence of that? Have you talked with any of the Franciscans there who have told you that that's what they saw as well?

SENNOTT: There is no evidence of any of that here now. And just to know the sequence of events, the American officials, presumably with the CIA, came in and completely swept the church, picked up all the weapons, and checked the church. So, then the Israelis came in after the CIA officials had left, and did their own search after they cleared everyone out of the church, and the Franciscans are, maybe we could say, used to the Holy Land and used to the Middle East, and all of the different sides that can be taken, and they are frankly a little suspicious of the Israeli claims. They are wondering whether this is real. They didn't see any booby traps when they got to first come in, and then the Israelis came in and suddenly found them. These are the things that we will just never know here.

HARRIS: Did they tell you at all -- did you talk at all with them about whether or not any of them were being held against their will, or if not the Franciscans, or the other Anglicans who were there, or the Greek Orthodox who were there, if not them, if any of the children who were there, and were they being held against their will?

SENNOTT: None of the people I have spoken with who were inside, and I would say I have spoken to roughly three dozen now, say they were held against their will. There is no one here who is claiming that. What they do say is that, you know, there was a situation where they were -- have many different reasons not to leave. Some of the Palestinians stayed out of nationalist reasons. They wanted to have solidarity, and didn't want to leave. Some of them stayed because they were afraid they would be arrested when they went outside, or shot at, because they are part of the Palestinian police or had been part of what we could call irregulars, fighting militia brigades. So, they were afraid of that. Others were just also afraid they could be killed because one of the things that shouldn't be lost in all this is seven people were killed inside the church compound by the Israelis, and one of the Franciscan priests pointed out to me that there is the sanctity of the church, but there is also the sanctity of the human life that was lost in here. The Israelis haven't proven that they were, as they claim, terrorists. They were kind of waiting to see how did the Israelis know who they were shooting at. 22 were also injured, one of them was an Armenian monk who was in his residence.

HARRIS: And the Israelis have admitted that that was a mistake, and there is also, though, disputing the fact that those inside that church did have guns, and were actually shooting themselves.

Let me ask you again about the children. This is one of the things that has gotten a lot of the world concerned who have been outside watching this, from the outside looking in. Have you had a chance to get into the area where they say the children were hiding? We understand that they were in some place near the grotto, is that correct?

SENNOTT: I have not, and I am not fully aware of that situation. So, I really shouldn't speak about it, because I haven't been there, and I haven't spoken to any of those children.

HARRIS: This is absolutely fascinating to actually finally get a chance to get inside and see that. Are you surprised by what you see there, or did you expect worse?

SENNOTT: I think it is about what I had expected. There has been, you know, a considerable number of windows shot out. There is damage inside the church from bullet holes, and things like that, but nothing substantive. And as I said, I thought it was just an interesting point that one of the Franciscans made that, you know, there is the sanctity of the church, but there is also the sanctity of the life of the people who are inside here, and that they are sad that both sides violated that sanctity of this place, and that seems to me to be the real, I don't know, most important message I'm hearing from the Franciscan priests, is that both sides violated the sanctity of this holy space, and that from their point of view, have really hurt their reputation, or their claims to want to be the legitimate representatives who will guard these holy places.

HARRIS: That's an excellent...

SENNOTT: So they are very concern about it. This -- they don't ever want this to happen again.

HARRIS: That's a very excellent...

SENNOTT: They want to get some international guarantees to protect the holy sites.

HARRIS: That is a very interesting point. And -- that may be some time in coming before they get anything like a guarantee on something like that. But we will be watching to see how this all unfolds, as we always do.

Charles Sennott, thank you very much. We sure do appreciate your taking time to talk with us and sharing your insights after having gotten inside that Church of the Nativity.




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