Nativity scene no stranger to conflict

BETHLEHEM (Reuters) – The Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, where Israeli troops have been besieging Palestinian militants for the past five weeks, is no stranger to conflict. The church stands by Manger Square over the site of a cave in which Christians believe Jesus was born. The Roman Emperor Constantine ordered the first church built in the fourth century AD. Samaritans destroyed much of the original church during a revolt in 529 AD. Crusader and Muslim armies fought over it for many years. The church was rebuilt during the reign of Roman Emperor Justinian in about 530. Over the centuries, it has been renovated and expanded with the addition of other chapels and monasteries. The Roman Catholic, Armenian and Greek Orthodox churches have shared custody of the Church of the Nativity since 1852. The most revered point for most worshipers and pilgrims is the Grotto of the Nativity. A silver star, installed by the Catholics in 1717, is set in white marble over the exact spot where Jesus is said to have been born. Nearby are the Altar of the Manger, marking the place where Jesus was laid after Mary gave birth, and the Altar of the Magi, marking where the Three Wise Men paid homage to Jesus after traveling through the desert to Bethlehem. The nave of the basilica dates to Justinian’s time. The columns lining it feature crusader paintings of the saints and the Virgin Mary and child. Next to the altar is part of a mosaic floor surviving from the fourth century. Connected to it is St. Catherine’s Church, built by Franciscans in the 1880s on the site of a 12th-century Augustinian monastery. Thousands of pilgrims flock to the church each year, the highlight being the Christmas celebration. Bethlehem lies about 8 kilometers (5 miles) south of Jerusalem in an area under Palestinian self-rule. The Palestinian gunmen in the church were among 200 people who took refuge in the shrine on April 2 when Israeli troops entered the biblical town in a sweep for militants during a West Bank offensive that followed Palestinian suicide attacks. Olympics education