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Church of Nativity undamaged after standoff

Inside the Church of the Nativity.
Armenian priests walk over sleeping mats and food remains in the Church of the Nativity Friday.  

BETHLEHEM, West Bank (CNN) -- The world got its first look inside Bethlehem's Church of the Nativity Friday, hours after Israeli troops allowed 124 Palestinians to leave -- ending a five-week standoff.

Priests and witnesses said the Palestinians did not seriously damage the church. Videotape shot inside the church showed piles of clothing, cooking pots and dishes and piles of bedding and clothes along the walls.

Charles Sennott, who has written a book about the church also said he saw no major damage but did say the church was filthy.

"I came in with the Franciscans who helped with my book," said Sennott. "The damage is not extensive. There was no serious damage but the basilica is quite a mess." He described the smell as "horrible," saying eating utensils and trash were strewn about.

As bad as the conditions were at the church, Father Kyprianos managed to keep his sense of humor when asked how he felt viewing the mess. "What I would probably say (it) would be an advertisement for ... a cleaning product."

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"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," he added.

Another priest told The Associated Press that foreign peace activists who sneaked into the church later desecrated the holy site by smoking and drinking alcohol inside.

A monk who also was inside during the standoff said he was not held against his will and was not mistreated.

Kyprianos said he and the other clergy were mostly afraid someone might get hurt because of the gunmen's "clumsiness, silliness."

The priest said the Palestinians had split up into factions. "There was the army group, the police group and different other groups. And each group had their own section in the basilica," he remembered.

The priest said one group had slept in the grotto thought to be birth site of Jesus Christ until the clergy asked the Palestinians to leave that area so that religious services could be held there.

The priest also said it was only in the early days of the standoff that he feared the Israeli troops would rush the building. He said he later relaxed when the Greek Orthodox patriarchy assured him the Israeli army had guaranteed it would not enter the church.

After the Palestinians' departure an Israel Defense Forces spokesman said 40 "explosive devices" were found in the church compound. The spokesman said the IDF was invited into the compound by church officials who asked the military to check the facility.

Hours earlier, the standoff came to an end when the Palestinians -- including 13 Palestinians labeled "senior terrorists" -- were allowed to leave. They were flown by British military aircraft to the Mediterranean island of Cyprus -- a transit point for their eventual exile in several European nations.

Priests and witnesses said the Palestinians did not inflict any serious damage on the Church of the Nativity.
Priests and witnesses said the Palestinians did not inflict any serious damage on the Church of the Nativity.  

A number of European countries agreed Thursday to accept the 13 militants, dispersing them among the countries of the European Union, an EU source told CNN.

Most Christians consider the church to be built on the site of the birthplace of Jesus. The Palestinians walked out through metal detectors into an Israeli bus about 6:45 a.m. (11:45 p.m. Thursday EDT).

The deal called for another 26 Palestinians to be taken to Gaza, where they could face trial on terrorism charges. Upon their arrival in Gaza, the 26 were greeted by crowds as heroes. The rest of the 124 were to be set free.

They had been holed up inside the church since April 2, when they took refuge there during the recent Israeli push into the West Bank. The Israelis said the Palestinians had taken the nuns and priests inside as hostages: The clergy disputed that, saying they had stayed inside to provide refuge for the fighters and to protect the church.

"We are staying here, not because of the Palestinians, but we are staying here because this is our house, because we try to protect this place," said Rev. Cewelalo, a Franciscan priest. "This is our mission and we are convinced that we chose this mission."

Israeli tanks and troops entered Bethlehem as part of a military campaign Israeli officials said was intended to dismantle the "terrorist infrastructure in the Palestinian territories."

President Bush praised the peaceful end of the standoff Friday, saying it removed an obstacle to restoring security cooperation between Israel and the Palestinian Authority. "The end of the standoff in Bethlehem is a positive development that removes an obstacle to restoring security cooperation between the parties and should advance the prospects for resuming a political process toward peace," Bush said in a statement.

The Palestinians were supposed to have left the church Thursday morning. But the agreement hit a snag when they demanded that European Union envoy Alistair Crooke be allowed to stay with the 13 Palestinians inside the church to assure their safety, sources inside the church said.

"This morning, again and again after the agreement was reached, the people inside blocked the implementation by making more requests, more demands," said Lt. Col. Olivier Rafowicz, an Israeli army spokesman. "It really seems like they are trying to block implementation of the agreement."

The buses waiting to take the Palestinians away from the church left empty, and Israeli tanks moved back in front of the church.

An earlier agreement to end the standoff failed when Italy refused to take the 13 Palestinian gunmen. Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi said no one nation could be asked to take on that responsibility and said the European Union needed to find an EU solution.




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