Fire in Grotto of the Nativity in Bethlehem

… a few hours after Pope Francis returned to Rome. http://The%20Guardian:

A fire broke out in Bethlehem’s Church of the Nativity on Tuesday, just hours after Pope Francis wrapped up a three-day Middle East pilgrimage during which he visited the shrine.

Bethlehem’s governor, Abdel-Fatah Hamayel, said it was a small fire caused by an oil lamp falling over just before dawn, leaving some damage to fabric wall hangings inside the grotto.

The fire was discovered when the security guard smelled smoke – the blaze broke out in the cave underneath the 4th-century basilica where Christians believe Mary gave birth to Jesus.

Inside, the charred remains of several brightly coloured wall hangings hung limply against the cave walls, which were blackened with soot. Two ornate icons of Mary holding Jesus had smoke damage.

A statement from Bethlehem police said a wooden-topped bowl had caught fire at the entrance to the grotto which caused candles to fall down and set fire to curtains, with a number of wall tiles also cracking in the heat.

Pope Francis visited the church on Sunday after celebrating an open-air mass in Bethlehem’s Manger Square at the start of the Israeli-Palestinian leg of his Middle East pilgrimage, which began in Jordan on Saturday.

The basilica, which was built by the Roman emperor Constantine, attracts more than a million pilgrims every year, making it the biggest tourist attraction in the occupied Palestinian territories outside Israeli-annexed East Jerusalem.

In a separate development, police were investigating an arson attempt on Tuesday, at Jerusalem’s Church of the Dormition which occurred shortly after the pope finished celebrating mass in the nearby upper room.

“Someone entered the church and went down to the crypt, took a book that is used by pilgrims to a small room next to the organ, and set some wooded crosses on fire,” Benedictine abbot Nikodemus Schnabel told AFP late on Monday.



Bethlehem’s Church Of The Nativity Renovation Underway

Jesus’ birthplace site gets urgent attention:

As visitors descend upon Bethlehem this holiday season, they will notice a different look for the Church of the Nativity. Wrapped in scaffolding, the basilica located at the traditional site of Jesus’ birth is undergoing a much-needed facelift after 600 years.

Experts say that water is leaking from the rooftop and threatens to cause serious damage to mosaics and other priceless items.

Project manager Afif Tweme said the first stage of the project began in September and is addressing the most pressing issues: the rooftop and windows.

“The water also has a bad effect on the plastering surfaces, on the mosaics, on the floors, on the frescoes. It could damage any, any historical elements inside the church,” said Tweme, who works for the “Community Development Group,” a Palestinian engineering consulting firm.

The companies carrying out the works are obliged to minimize any disruptions to visitors and make sure that pilgrims can “pass freely inside the church and safely,” he added.

The church is one of Christianity’s most visited and sacred shrines. Standing above the grotto where, according to tradition, Jesus was born, the church attracted more than 2 million visitors last year. But the building, with remnants up to 1,500 years old, has been neglected for decades.

Both the World Monuments Fund, a U.S.-based nonprofit group dedicated to protecting historic sites, and the U.N. cultural agency UNESCO have placed the church on their lists of endangered sites. And a high-tech survey by a consortium of Italian experts in 2011 called for urgent repairs.

The city of Bethlehem is situated in a part of the West Bank where the Palestinians have self-rule. The Western-backed Palestinian Authority has taken the lead and is financing a great portion of the works, said Ziad al-Bandak, an adviser on Christian affairs to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.

He said the government has provided $1 million, while an additional $800,000 is coming from the private sector. The rest is coming from European countries such as France, Hungary, Russia and Greece, contributing to the roughly $3 million in total needed for the first phase, al-Bandak said.

Beyond the painstaking process of preserving a delicate holy site, the work has been complicated by the sensitive relations among the three Christian denominations that share ownership of the church.

The Roman Catholic, Greek Orthodox and Armenian churches have traditionally viewed each other with deep suspicion. They run the Nativity Church according to a 19th century codex, known as the Status Quo, which assigns responsibilities for upkeep that are jealously guarded by each denomination. Relations are so fraught that these turf battles have occasionally escalated into fistfights between clergymen.

A senior church official said the three denominations would never have been able to reach an agreement on their own. But once the Palestinian Authority stepped in, all three churches accepted the decision. He spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not permitted to discuss the matter with the media.

The first phase, expected to last one year, is being carried out by “Piacenti,” an Italian firm that specializes in the renovation of historical sites. One by one, experts will repair the hundreds of wooden beams in the roof.

Company president Giammarco Piacenti said the rooftop was masterfully restored by Venetian carpenters in 1478. He said the project would be conservative and seek to keep as many original pieces as possible.

“We’ll save as many parts, even those in bad conditions, as we can,” he said. “We’ll only replace pieces that are no longer functional and can no longer help hold the roof. They will be as few as possible and will be made of a compatible wood, of aged wood of the same type and quality.”

Aside from the roof and windows, other elements that will need repair in the future are the external facade, internal plastering, wall mosaics and paintings and wooden works, said Tweme. If funding is secured, the work could take four to five years, he said…

Rest here.



Israeli Embassy: If Jesus and Mary Were Alive Today, They Would Be ‘Lynched in Bethlehem by Hostile Palestinians’



Israel’s diplomatic corps finds itself in hot water after posting an inflammatory message on an official Facebook page. Although the message has now been deleted, this is not the first time Israel has used social media to post controversial views.

The message appeared on the Israel in Ireland Facebook page – which is linked to on the official embassy site – on Monday morning. The post comprised a painting of Mary and Jesus, accompanied by the following caption:

“A thought for Christmas… If Jesus and mother Mary were alive today, they would, as Jews without security, probably end up being lynched in Bethlehem by hostile Palestinians. Just a thought…”

The message sparked immediate heated debate, but was taken down within hours.

“An image of Jesus and Mary with a derogatory comment about Palestinians was posted without the consent of the administrator of the Facebook page. We have removed the post in question immediately. Apologies to anyone who may have been offended,” said an official statement from the Israeli embassy in Dublin.

Since then, the Israel in Ireland page has been shut down altogether, and the link on the official website has been removed…


Bible Archaeology

A Bit More on the Bethlehem Bulla

[Background here.]

From Joseph I. Lauer via e-mail:

1. Yesterday, Zachi Dvira (Zweig) forwarded some information about the bulla and the work of the Temple Mount Sifting Project members. Zachi and Dr. Gabriel Barkay (the “Gaby” below) direct the Project.

Zachi wrote: “This bulla was found a few months ago at the sifting site by Rachel Nahum, which the sifting site office manager. It was found during the time we were working on Gibeon LMLK bulla essay. Gaby saw this bulla and identified it immediately as a fiscal bulla mentioning the town Bethlehem. We’ve been giving sifting services to Eli’s Shukrun excavations for over a year, but recently we have significantly increased the number of staff members working this material and it will take place for some time. We expect many more unique finds from this material to show up in the future.”

The IAA release quotes Eli Shukron stating, in part, “The bulla we found belongs to the group of “fiscal” bullae – administrative bullae used to seal tax shipments remitted to the taxation system of the Kingdom of Judah in the late eighth and seventh centuries BCE.”

Those interested in fiscal bulla should see Dr. Barkay’s report, “A Fiscal Bulla from the Slopes of the Temple Mount – Evidence for the Taxation System of the Judean Kingdom,” at and his essay at [pp. 151-77 in Hebrew, and two English pages].

2. The expanded AP news report, at PhysOrg and other sites, states: “Shmuel Achituv, an expert in ancient scripts at Israel’s Ben-Gurion University who did not participate in the dig, said the discovery was the oldest reference to Bethlehem ever found outside of the Bible. Apart from the seal, the other mentions of Bethlehem, Achituv said, ‘are only in the Bible.'” In addition, the article stated, “Hebrew words often do not have vowels, which are understood from the context, making several interpretations of the same word plausible. Some of the letters are crumbled, or were wiped away. Three experts interviewed by the AP, one involved in the text and two independents, concurred the seal says Bethlehem. There are only some 40 other existing seals of this kind from the first Jewish Temple period, said Achituv, making this a significant find, both because such seals are rare, and because this is the first to mention Bethlehem.” See “Ancient Bethlehem seal unearthed in Jerusalem” at

There’s also a video of Eli Shukron speaking about the bulla in English, including at

And see four pictures at

3. In my earlier “Is Bethlehem on the bulla?” e-mail I mentioned that “Some scholars have already indicated that they take issue with Eli Shukron’s reading of the bulla’s text (Bishv’at Bat Lechem [Lemel]ekh = in the seventh / bet lehem / lm[lk]) but see, instead, a person’s name or other wording.”

Since then, one scholar has posted the details of his disagreement and another has withdrawn his reservations about the “bet lehem” reading but with important caveats.

A. Today, May 24, Dr. George Athas posted “A New Seal that DOES NOT refer to Bethlehem” at his site, at

In it, besides making a political judgment, he explains in detail how he would read the lines differently and states his belief that the letter in the second line read as a het is actually a heh, negating a reading of of “lh(.)m” (=  “lechem”). In a comment, Dr. Peter van der Veen agreed in part with Dr. Athas but took issue with the heh reading (“I do think that it is a het as the left vertical line can be detected but it is rather damaged.”). Dr. Athas explained why he was not convinced and concluded that, “In any case, this is why we need another pair of skilled eyes to inspect this bulla. I simply don’t trust photos enough to make definitive judgements.”

(Interestingly, on May 23, a reader (“Sarah”, not an epigrapher) of Duane Smith’s “A ‘Fiscal Bulla’ From Bethlehem” posting wrote, “looks like a he not a cheth in ‘Bethlehem’.” See

However (and more on that below based on Dr. Ahituv’s observations), when you look closely at a greatly enlarged photo of the bulla, such as the IAA’s high-resolution picture at ZIP file, do you see what could be an almost completely effaced left stroke of a het?

(Unless my eyes are playing tricks on me, and subject to stereoscopic microscope analysis, it seems to be there when observed at very great enlargement.)

Or do you see a heh? (The shading at the left between the horizontal lines and to the left above the top line would disqualify the heh.)

Ha’aretz also has a not-quite-as-large picture (that is further enlargeable when clicked upon with the mouse cursor) at!/image/121356148.jpg

B. Dr. Victor Avigdor Hurowitz of Ben-Gurion University initially expressed reservations about the reading of the bulla in the IAA’s press release.

However, in an e-mail and a posting at his Facebook page he wrote the following about an hour ago: “Retraction about Beytlehem bulla. Friends, I must retract the statements I made a few days ago about the newly found bulla mentioning [b]yt lh(.)m בית לחם. Why? It turns out that my objections were based on a mistaken press release of the bulla issued by the IAA. They offered a transcription and transliteration which were erroneous. My colleague Shmuel Ahituv, an epigrapher, saw the bulla itself and he informs me that the signs on the right which the IAA transcribed as ב are in fact on close examination of the object remnants of a yod. Also, the letter transcribed as ח is indeed such. On the photo it looks like a ה because the down stroke on the left seems to be absent. Ahituv tells me that traces are still visible. In other words, the text reads [ב]ית לחם This is obviously Bethlehem and I have no objections to the identification. In summary, if Ahituv’s transcription and decipherment are correct this bulla is an attestation of this place in an extra-Biblical, Iron Age source. But if the IAA has correctly transcribed the text, my objections stand. So I retract my objection but will not accept blame.”


Bible Archaeology

Ancient Bethlehem Seal Unearthed in Jerusalem

AP is reporting:

Jerusalem — Israeli archaeologists have discovered a 2,700-year-old seal that bears the inscription “Bethlehem,” the Israel Antiquities Authority announced Wednesday, in what experts believe to be the oldest artifact with the name of Jesus’ traditional birthplace.

The tiny clay seal’s existence and age provide vivid evidence that Bethlehem was not just the name of a fabled biblical town, but also a bustling place of trade linked to the nearby city of Jerusalem, archaeologists said.

Eli Shukron, the authority’s director of excavations, said the find was significant because it is the first time the name “Bethlehem” appears outside of a biblical text from that period.

Shukron said the seal, 1.5 centimeters (0.59 inches) in diameter, dates back to the period of the first biblical Jewish Temple, between the eighth and seventh century B.C., at a time when Jewish kings reigned over the ancient kingdom of Judah and 700 years before Jesus was born.

The seal was written in ancient Hebrew script from the same time. Pottery found nearby also dated back to the same period, he said.

Shmuel Achituv, an expert in ancient scripts at Israel’s Ben-Gurion University who did not participate in the dig, said the discovery was the oldest reference to Bethlehem ever found outside of the Bible. Apart from the seal, the other mentions of Bethlehem, Achituv said, “are only in the Bible.”

The stamp, also known as “fiscal bulla,” was likely used to seal an administrative tax document, sent from Bethlehem to Jerusalem, the seat of Jewish power at the time.

It was found as archaeologists sifted through mounds of dirt they had dug up in an excavation outside Jerusalem’s Old City walls.

Shukron said the first line most likely read “Beshava’at” — or “in the seventh” — most likely the year of the reign of a king. The second line, he said, has the crumbling letters of the word “Bethlehem.” The third line carried one letter, a “ch” which Shukron said was the last letter of the Hebrew work for king, “melech.”

Hebrew words often do not have vowels, which are understood from the context, making several interpretations of the same word plausible. Some of the letters are crumbled, or were wiped away. Three experts interviewed by the AP, one involved in the text and two independents, concurred the seal says Bethlehem.

There are only some 40 other existing seals of this kind from the first Jewish Temple period, said Achituv, making this a significant find, both because such seals are rare, and because this is the first to mention Bethlehem.

The dig itself has raised controversy.

It is being underwritten by an extreme-right wing Jewish organization that seeks to populate the crowded Palestinian neighborhood of Silwan with Jewish settlers, arguing that they have ancient links to the area. The dig is being undertaken in a national park in the area of Silwan, known to Jews as “the City of David.”

Shukron said the seal was found some months ago, but they needed time to confirm the identity of the artifact.



Orthodox Priests Fighting In Church of the Nativity – A Personal Reflection by a Catholic Priest

[For a background on brawl between the Greek Orthodox and Armenian priests, click here]

Writes Msgr Charles Pope:

One of the more surprising, and personally saddest things I have encountered in my trips to the Holy Land, is the encounter with Orthodox clergy. While I had been trained to expect tensions between Jews and Arabs, my experience involving the Orthodox clergy was actually the most tense and shocking. It also surprised me since, speaking for myself, I have always had great admiration for the beautiful liturgies of the Orthodox.  And, while I know little of the internal realities of those Churches, I have always hoped for reunion. My experiences in the Holy Land showed me very clearly how difficult and unlikely such a reunion may be. A few personal stories.

1. Mass at the Calvary – On my last trip, two years ago I was given the magnificent privilege of celebrating Holy Mass with my parishioners right up on the Calvary, at the Latin Altar in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. (See photo at upper right). It remains one of the highlights of my entire life. There I was celebrating Mass just feet away from where the cross had once stood, and over the sight of the nailing.

I had reported to the Latin sacristy at 5:30 AM and vested for the 6:00 AM Mass. One of the Franciscan Friars spoke to me in a kind but firm way about the rules that must be observed. He warned me that under no circumstances was I to set foot outside of the sacristy once I had vested. To do so, he warned me, would likely provoke a violent response from the Orthodox clergy, standing twenty feet away near the entrance to the supulchre. When I smiled in stunned wonderment, he reiterated, “Father I am very serious, if you do so you will provoke an international incident.”

The only way we could get to the Calvary Altar at the other end of the Church was to be led there by an approved escort. Any singing was also forbidden during the Mass, a restriction that made sense given the need not to disturb other liturgies underway.

We were also warned severely not to stray from the Latin Chapel with while wearing our Roman vestments. During the Mass, which was a beautiful experience otherwise, the deacon with me strayed just a little too far to my left and the Orthodox priest standing guard at the Greek altar, wildly gestured that he must step back. Following the Mass, we clergy had, once again, to be carefully escorted back to the sacristy.

2. I do not claim to understand the hostility directed toward Roman clergy by the Orthodox priests of different nationalities. I am sure it is ancient and we are not likely innocent. But I also learned how hostile they are to one another.

Behind the Sepulchre is the Jacobite (Syrian Orthodox) chapel. In it, according to tradition, one can enter a cave said to be the burial chamber of Nicodemus (though it is empty). But the Chapel is scorched black, and in a ruinous state by a fire that happened back in the 1800s. It was explained to me by one of the docents that the chapel has never been repaired because no agreement could be reached among the Orthodox clergy on how to get supplies in to repair the chapel. “Amazing!” I said. “Its pretty normal for here,” said the docent.

3. These sorts of tensions also lead to the Church of the Nativity and the Holy Sepulchre having a cluttered, dingy, and unrepaired quality to them. Even pushing a broom requires delicate negotiations.

4. Cronyism – Over at the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem similar tensions exist, as you can see in the video below.  When I was last there, the line to go down into the grotto of the nativity below the high altar,  came to a halt and did not move for almost an hour. Our tour guide discovered that the reason for this was that a Russian Orthodox priest was conducting a private tour for a group that had paid him to do so. That group had walked past the rest of us in line and the priest took them down and conducted a service and raised funds. The other tour guides finally had to summon the Palestinian police to force an end to the unscheduled and unpermitted  “fundraiser.”

Our tour guide told us she always felt the most tense going to the Church of the Nativity and the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, since the hostility and unpredictability of the the Orthodox clergy often led to complications. I can attest to that!

The rest of the sites in the Holy land, both in Jerusalem and up in Galilee, were largely overseen by the Franciscans of the Holy Land, and they are most agreeable and kind to people of every faith. They were true gentlemen everywhere we went and they do a splendid job maintaining the shrines too. God bless the Franciscans of the Holy Land and I would encourage you to be generous to them. They do good work in a difficult land.

All this leads to the video below: A sad and disturbing sight of dozens of orthodox and Armenian priests bashing each other with broom handles.

It reminds me of the great sadness I felt in Jerusalem as I was led by a guard to go and say Mass at the seat of mercy. What an odd juxtaposition, and yet what a strong reminder of how much we need the power of the Cross. As the guard led me out and up the steep steps to the Calvary Chapel,  I thought of Christ being led up the same hillside, not for his protection, but for my salvation.

And even to this day, at the two holy sites in Jerusalem and Bethlehem, it seems Satan still lurks and sulks. The video below shows that he is still able to lash out from time to time and, sadly, we connive in his plots.

Lord have mercy on us and grant us peace on earth.

And while I agree that the Franciscans do a fantastic job (which makes the Galilee a far more tranquil experience) some can be quite brusque when it comes to an erring tourist.