Activists Removed From Church
By Ibrahim Hazboun
Associated Press Writer
Friday, May 10, 2002; 8:38 PM
BETHLEHEM, West Bank –– Ten foreign activists, including four Americans, who spent a week with armed Palestinians holed up inside the Church of the Nativity claimed they were pushed and shoved by clergy who locked them in a room Friday, just before Israeli police removed them from the sanctuary.
Priests said they didn't know anything about the claims, and one accused the activists of desecrating the holy site by smoking and drinking alcohol.
Members of the International Solidarity Movement – dedicated to bringing international attention to the plight of the Palestinians – had refused to leave the church early Friday, delaying an end to a 39-day standoff and an Israeli troop withdrawal from a city that had been under curfew for more than five weeks.
After several hours, Israeli police in riot gear went into the church and forced them out. All 10 activists, including four Americans, were being questioned by police and will be deported, according to police spokesman Rafi Yaffe.
U.S. Embassy officials said the Americans detained Friday were receiving consular services. They were identified as Nauman Zaidi, 26, of Rancho Cucamonga, Calif.; Robert O'Neill, 21, of Claremont, Calif.,; Larry Hales, 26, of Denver, and Kristen Schurr, 33, of New York City.
The activists had slipped into the church on May 2 in a show of solidarity with the Palestinians and to deliver food. Once inside, they reported that people were suffering from hunger. But reporters who entered the church Friday found a large cabinet full of food, including more than 20 bags of lentils and rice, canned goods and cooking oil. Lemons from the church garden were piled on a blanket.
The International Solidarity Movement said in a statement that the activists were surrounded by priests Friday who "insulted them, pushed and shoved several of the internationals and locked all of them into one room."
Allegra Pachecco, an American-Israeli human rights lawyer who was representing them, said the group had wanted guarantees that they could hold a news conference and exit the church with their lawyer.
Father Gustavo, a Franciscan priest who was in the church during the standoff, said the activists had spent the entire time in a room in the Greek-Orthodox section of the church and were there when police came to arrest them.
One priest, who asked not to be identified, said the activists desecrated the holy site built over the traditional birthplace of Jesus by smoking and drinking.
Pachecco denied the allegations. During their stay in the church, the activists "received constant support and appreciation for their efforts and at no time did anyone ever raise any complaints against them," she said.
Before leaving the church they had "pleaded with the priests to let them clean up the entire church" but were told to leave immediately and turn themselves in to the Israelis, Pachecco said. They had the "utmost respect for the church as a holy place," she added.
In addition to the four Americans, those arrested Friday include a British citizen, two Swedes, a Canadian, an Irish citizen and an activist from Denmark.
They emerged hours after the Palestinians had left, waving V-signs at bystanders before they were taken away by police.
The 39 Palestinian militiamen walked out of the compound at sunrise Friday in a deal between Israel and the Palestinians. Thirteen of the gunmen were deported to Cyprus, a first stopover to exile in various European countries, and 26 were released in the Gaza Strip.
Georgina Reeves, a member of International Solidarity Movement, said earlier Friday the group had hoped for the same terms granted to their colleagues who had been holed up in Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat's compound in Ramallah.
Adam Shapiro, 30, from New York, and Caoimhe Butterly from Dublin, Ireland, were allowed to walk out without consequence after they spent a night under fire in Arafat's offices.