The sight of a Franciscan friar at the Door of Humility at dawn on Friday, marked the end of the 39 day siege at Bethlehem's Church of the Nativity. After weeks of intense and laboured negotiations, agreement was finally reached on the fate of the Palestinians, some of them armed, who had taken refuge inside the basilica when Israeli troops invaded the West Bank on April 2nd. And so in the early hours of Friday morning Franciscan Friar Fr Ibrahim Faltas led 13 Palestinians out of the church to transport waiting to take them into what could be permanent exile. Another 26 of their countrymen, described by the Israeli government as being of "medium danger", were taken to internal confinement in the Gaza Strip. The monks, along with a group of peace activists who had broken into the church during the siege, were the last to leave as representatives of the Holy See repeated its call for an international peace conference to work towards finding a "just and lasting peace" in the region. Speaking after he had received the news that the siege was over the Papal Envoy to the Holy Land spoke a "new nativity". Cardinal Etchegaray who returned to Rome on Monday after meeting with leaders of the Israeli Government and the National Palestinian Authority, congratulated the international community's determination to remove the "last obstacles for the solution". Meanwhile the Franciscan Order, among the three custodians of the Church of the Nativity spoke of its continued commitment to peace. Fr Giacomo Bini, Minister General of the Order of Friars Minor (OFM) said that the suffering of the past month should "serve as a seed and as a commitment to obtain peace in this tormented land. This is the most important objective for us at this stage." Relieved that the monks inside had been released safely the Minister General said he could hardly hide his desire to see the brothers again welcome and "congratulate them for the perseverance that they demonstrated and for the effort of mediation". The Order has also confirmed that there are concerns about the condition of the ancient basilica but added that plans were already in motion to arrange a meeting between the representatives of the custodians of the church and a member of the Israeli government responsible for religious affairs, to discuss its future. After the Israeli troops had cleared the area, weapons were removed by American officials and the peace protesters led out to face an uncertain future, the leaders of the Franciscans, the Greek-Orthodox and the Armenians as joint stewards of the basilica, were told that they would be the first to re-enter the building, together.
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