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After 38 Days, Siege of Church of Nativity Compound Has Ended

Aired May 10, 2002 - 10:15   ET


DARYN KAGAN, CNN ANCHOR: Our big story happening today is the end of the siege at the Church of the Nativity. That action taking place in Bethlehem. Let's bring in our Mike Hanna, who is standing by with that news -- Mike, hello.

MIKE HANNA, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, hello, Daryn. Behind me the bells in the Church of the Nativity are ringing (ph). Whether it is in celebration whether it is relief, that is not clear. But after 38 days, the siege of the Church of the Nativity compound has ended, and it ended in orderly manner, especially given the disorderly negotiations that led to this point, negotiations that were on again, off again, on again...

KAGAN: Mike? Mike, I'm sorry. Mike, it's Daryn. I just need to interrupt you, because what our viewers are seeing right now, the first video we are getting in, where we can actually see inside the Church of the Nativity. This is the first chance to see inside since this long siege has been going on and since it ended.

And while it was ending, we had heard claims that there was a lot of destruction to this incredibly holy site to Christians around the world. We want to let our viewers -- want our viewers to know as we watch these pictures, this is what we call a raw feed, we are showing it to you folks as we get it in.

Mike, as we -- I don't know -- I am pretty sure you can't see the pictures that we are showing right now. But as we do show them, and it looks like it's a priest who is showing around the photographer, what you can share with us, what you have learned about what has happened to the inside of the church during this 39 day siege.

HANNA: Well, once again, Daryn, you have the advantage on me is that you are seeing the pictures. I am not seeing them at this stage. What I can tell you is that the -- within the last hour or so, the representatives within the church asked the Israeli Defense Force to come inside to remove explosive devices...

KAGAN: Mike, I'm sorry -- I'm sorry. Mike, I'm sorry.

HANNA: ... or booby traps that had been placed around the church here.

KAGAN: I'm going to interrupt you one more time. The person who is showing our photographer around the church is actually speaking English, so we are going to listen to him for just a bit. We'll come back to you in a moment.


UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: And what about the gunmen? Have they done much damage?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I can say it was only (UNINTELLIGIBLE). You can go up and see it.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: OK. What is your name?


UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Kyprianos, thank you very much.

KAGAN: All right. That sound is done. We just got a little bit there at the end, but once again, more pictures coming in. Mike, again, you can't see these pictures, but you were sharing with us information that you had. It looks like some of the parts are untouched, and yet some looks very much the evidence of the desperate situation that has taken place there the last 39 days. People are looking for food and cupboards opened and stripped bare and a lot of debris all over the place.

Mike, let's bring you back in, and I am sorry to interrupt your thought before when we were going to go and listen to that sound. But if you could share with us what you have just heard about what had taken place and what life was like, the desperate situation of what life was like for the some 200 people who were holed up inside the church over the last 39 days.

HANNA: Well, first of all, Daryn, let's just explain that as I was saying, the representatives of the church, of the three religions who basically control the church, called in the Israeli Defense Force to search the interior of church for any booby traps, any explosives that had been left behind, when the people emerged from the church compound after this long siege.

And according to the Israeli Defense Force, some 40 of what is described as explosive devices were found within the body of the church itself. Some of these, said an Israeli Defense Force spokesman, were booby traps, in his words. They have now been taken out by Israeli Defense Force staffers (ph), and they will be removed for safe dispersal.

But the situation now is that siege is over. The bells behind me are ringing out, as I said, in relief or celebration, not clear. But after 38 days, the siege of Bethlehem has ended -- Daryn.

KAGAN: Our Mike Hanna on the scene in Bethlehem -- Mike, thank you very much.

And now we go back to this videotape -- let's listen in.


UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Could I just ask to you spell your name for me? I am sorry. I didn't understand.






UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: And how would I -- what is your title? How would I describe you?


UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: OK, so Father Kyprianos.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: OK, yes, Father Kyprianos. It is Father Kyprianos (ph).

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Thank you very much.


KAGAN: All right. Once again, you are seeing the pictures for the first time right along with us folks. We are just being fed these pictures in from Bethlehem, our first look inside the Church of the Nativity since that siege ended earlier today. What you see is evidence of what has been a very difficult stay inside for the some 200 people who were holed up during the siege.

Once again, if you were listening to Mike Hanna, you heard that the siege has ended. The last stipulation, the 13 people, who were identified as terrorists by Israel, sent to Cyprus, and then they will be sent on to other countries.

We are going to listen once again.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: ... especially food matter. A lot of them wanted smokes. Some even had cold turkey after a while. A lot of walking so they won't go numb. And they were just anxious to -- at the end, anxious just to leave, to abandon the church.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: But you were here the whole time.


UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: How did you live? How did you manage everyday? What did you eat?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We had a very small supply for the four Greek Orthodox fathers that were upstairs in the top floor of the monastery. And we were able -- in the beginning, we weren't suspecting a war in Bethlehem, and nothing like this. So we always have stock. So we had five sacks of rice and a big sack of beans. We were able to supply the Palestinians for the first two, three weeks -- two weeks.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: But you were running out of food yourselves by the end.


UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: What have you eaten in the last few days?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I don't remember. I think it's water and something.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Were you afraid at any stage that the Israelis would come into the church?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Maybe in the beginning, but then after that, well, I had full contact with the patriarchy, the Greek Orthodox patriarchy, and they assured me of the guarantee that Israeli's army would not enter the church.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: How did the gunmen behave? Were you threatened to stay here, or was it your choice?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Well, we were mostly scared of clumsiness, maybe, you know, something that would harm somebody, of clumsiness, silliness.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: But you were never threatened by the gunmen.


UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: And how did they behave when they were in the church?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Comme ci, comme ca.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Did you feel at any point that they would try and stop you leaving did you feel like a hostage?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: No, not at any point.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: When you see the scene here today, how does it make you feel seeing the church in this condition?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Well, what I would probably say would be an advertisement for a product, for a clean product.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: But just describe to me a little. Or maybe if you wouldn't mind, Father, you could just show me a little bit of what is behind us, just -- and tell me how it looks.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Well, there were mostly parties, you know. There was the army, the police, the army group, the police group and different other groups. And each group had their own section in the basilica.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: So who was sleeping here, for example?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I won't say. One of the parties. One of the parties that was here. The other party was over there. The other party was just behind the baptismal font.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Another party would be on the other side. The center would always be clear for walking, to walk.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: So everybody slept more or less in here?


UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Because we were told that some people...

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Close to the walls.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: ... that some people slept in the grotto, or no?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: In the beginning, but we asked them kindly to leave the grotto...


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: ... so we can do our services, morning services. And the next morning, they cleared it out.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: So everybody, the gunmen, everybody was sleeping inside.


UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: And you had more than 120 people, I guess?


UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Did you ever think that you would come out of this alive?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Yes. I have hopes and I pray a lot to God.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: And after all this has happened here now in Bethlehem, how does it make you feel? Do you think the church can be returned to what it was?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Even better, yes.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: If I could ask you, Father, just to say a few sentences, because my question will be gone, so if it is possible just to be a little bit more -- to say a little bit more. So how do you see the future? UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Well, there is a lot of work to be done, a lot of cleaning to be done. I believe, and hopefully God willing, that the Church of the Nativity will come back to its -- even better stage.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Do you think it's possible though that after Palestinian gunmen come in here, seek refuge and in fact become free as a result of it, that this could happen again?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Yes. But we will take measures for this.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Father, your name again just for the record?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Father Kyprianos.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Father Kyprianos, thank you.

KAGAN: Well, we have been listening to and looking at a fascinating look and conversation inside the Church of the Nativity. You are watching these pictures and hearing this conversation as it comes in to us here at CNN, right alongside of us. Fascinating explanation of how it was set up, different groups in different parts of the church over the last 39 days.

You heard that priest share with us that they weren't expecting certainly something like this to happen. but they do keep a stash of food upstairs, and they had about enough for two to three weeks. Since then, not much to eat, just water basically.

In terms of what the behavior was of the Palestinian gunmen who were holed up in there, the priest said "comme ci, comme ca." In other words, so-so. And I think what the pictures we are seeing would be evidence of that.

And on a hopeful note when asked what he thinks the future of the Church of the Nativity will be, this priest sharing with us even better.

HARRIS: Let me add something else to, Daryn, because as I was listening, and I noted that, you know, we have been hearing these reports about them eating grass soup.

KAGAN: Right.

HARRIS: They had basically taking water and boiling grass and eating that. But I thought it was very interesting that the priest would not say who was in which part of the church. Although he also said that the Palestinians were not threatening them.

KAGAN: That's true.

HARRIS: They did not feel as though they were threatened by the Palestinians, still not clear whether or not they were there held against their will, if they were not...


KAGAN: Well, he said that they weren't hostages.

HARRIS: They were not hostages.


HARRIS: But they also felt that they would not be necessarily, for some reason it would not be a good idea for them to try to leave. But also, one other thing too I thought was fairly interesting. Did you catch the part where he said that they asked for the cooperation so they could continue their morning services?

KAGAN: Yes. If they would clear out of the grotto.

HARRIS: They moved out of the grotto, so they could continue their morning services. Even though they were in this situation for the past 39 days, they were still trying to conduct some sort of a normal church life there inside that facility.

KAGAN: Right. And therein lies the conflict. On one hand, they were respectful of these priests that were trying to conduct the religious. And yet, basically they held hostage one of the holiest sites in all of Christianity, held this site hostage for the last 39 days. And as you can see from the pictures that we are looking at, clearly did not treat it with the complete respect that many Christians around the world, I am sure, would wish that they had.

HARRIS: Now, one thing you can't get from this picture is what it must feel like or smell like inside there. And we're talking about a number of people, 120...


HARRIS: ... who were not able to bathe for over a month. In addition to that, you had a number of chain smokers who, as he said, toward the end...

KAGAN: They wanted food and they wanted cigarettes.

HARRIS: ... they wanted tobacco -- yes.


HARRIS: But it got toward the end, and they had to go quit cold turkey, because they couldn't get anymore supplies in there. So you can just imagine what those kinds of conditions must feel like, that plus the fact that you don't necessarily have regular circulating air through there either. So that could have been some tough conditions.

One other thing I was listening for but did not hear was anything about the children...

KAGAN: Right.

HARRIS: ... who were there inside, and it is still not clear whether or not the children were being held there against their wishes or against their will.

KAGAN: Well, and what they were doing there in the first place, and why the sides didn't come together to get children out of such a difficult situation.

HARRIS: Now, some of the reports about how they got in there was just that when everything broke out, they just happened to be in the area...

KAGAN: Right, in chaos.

HARRIS: ... a chaotic situation, they all ran inside to hide.

KAGAN: Right. Well, one thing to get in and another thing to be adults to make sure that the kids could have gotten out to a safer situation.

HARRIS: Good point.

KAGAN: Once again, we want to remind our viewers, you are seeing these pictures as they come in. You are seeing them first on CNN. And welcome to a front row seat of our system works, because you are seeing them for the first time and hearing these interviews just as it comes in. We are turning it around and bringing it to you as quickly as we get it.

HARRIS: Now, that is the shot there going back toward the main alter area where the grotto is actually, where the manger, where they believe the manger is to the left in one scene we saw there. For weeks, we have been trying to imagine what it's like inside here. And pretty close to what, at least what I had imagined. How about you?

KAGAN: It is hard to even imagine. I have never even visited there. This is my first glimpse inside of what the church is like. I have to say I feel some sadness in looking at this. Once again, such a holy important site. I believe that's the Door of Humility.

HARRIS: That's the Door of Humility. But you know what? When you consider everything this church has been through over the past -- what -- 700 years or so, this is a minor -- this is just a minor blip on the, you know, the history scale, the history line of this church. It has been destroyed. It has been taken over by various conquerors who have come through there, the crusaders, the Muslims who came through there and took over the area. It was destroyed at a couple of different points. It was rebuilt I believe in the year 600 and something in the 7th century. It was rebuilt.

So this is almost -- something almost normal in the history of that region, in the history of this church. And in this case, more respect was actually shown to it than in other cases in the past.

KAGAN: Yes, but I think the people who -- I mean, you can make the argument that people who used it for their shelter were disrespectful of a place that is so holy. I think also that reporter made a good point in asking that priest, do you think this will set a precedent? I mean, basically, look at what happened to the people who did take refuge inside of there. They are basically free or did not have a terrible, terrible thing happen to them besides the siege. Has this set the precedent? Does next time something breaks out, are people then not only are just going to take refuge in this holy place or perhaps other holy places as well.

HARRIS: Well, this particular place has had this happen numbers of times throughout the history. Remember, I did the little bit -- on that one segment I did on it last week. I learned that there have been throughout the history of this church, numbers of incidents.

In fact, I think one of the big incidents, one of the more devastating ones was back before this wall that you see this -- well, we're looking at some other video -- the wall that's actually surrounding the compound. Before that wall was even built, when the Muslims came through and wiped out those, before the crusaders had come in.

This was something of a tradition that people actually came into this holy place to hide, because they knew this was the one place where they could find some sanctuary. This has actually happened here many, many times throughout the years. This is the first time that we have actually been able to see it (UNINTELLIGIBLE).


HARRIS: Interesting.

KAGAN: Well, a chapter that has come to a close.


KAGAN: And we will continue to follow it, bring you these pictures, and once again, we wanted to share these pictures as soon as they came in, seeing them first here on CNN.





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