Bethlehem monks make defiant stand in Nativity siege

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Brother Mark Boyle staggers in, carrying a cardboard box full of Israeli rockets.

Brother Mark, a softly spoken 60-year-old monk from near Newcastle upon Tyne, came to Bethlehem to teach English at a Vatican-funded university. That was until the Israeli missiles slammed into the university buildings, blowing great holes in the wall and tearing apart classrooms.

Now, like everyone in the town, Brother Mark is under a curfew imposed by the Israeli army. Apart from a couple of three-hour respites to go shopping, he has not been allowed out for two weeks. Twelve monks live in the university; three Britons, eight Americans and a Palestinian. From the window of their living room, you can see the besieged Church of the Nativity, said to be the site of Jesus Christ's birthplace.

Brother Mark watched in horror on Tuesday night as heavy gunfire broke out around the church, with Israeli soldiers firing from all sides. One chapel caught fire briefly. The Palestinians accused the Israelis of trying to storm the church.

Inside, 240 Palestinian gunmen fleeing the Israelis have claimed sanctuary. The situation has developed into something out of the Middle Ages – or a Graham Greene novel. For while the adversaries face off at one of the holiest sites in the Christian world, some 30 monks have stepped between them. The monks, most of them Franciscan, are insisting that they will remain with the gunmen, to prevent a "bloodbath". At a meeting, they all agreed they would stay "to the end".

From his window, Brother Mark has seen the gunfights. He has watched, bemused, as the Israelis raised a loudspeaker on a crane and played a collection of sounds – dogs barking, women screaming – designed to terrify those inside. They responded by ringing the bells.

As we watch, a surveillance balloon floats above the church, and the sound of machine-gun fire cracks over the town.

"I think it would be devastating for Christians if the Church of the Nativity was assaulted, or broken into," Brother Mark said.

He and his colleagues at Bethlehem University are making their quiet stand. Western diplomats have offered to evacuate them. "What sort of Christian witnesses would we be if we left?" asks Brother Mark. The monks are still celebrating Mass daily. Father Peter DuBrule risks his life by breaking the curfew every day, to come to the university and say Mass in the town where Christ was born.