Both sides deny killing Bethlehem's bell ringer shot outside Nativity

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The Independent Online

Alongside the repetitive gunfire and explosions across Bethlehem yesterday, the bells of the Church of the Nativity rang out as usual.

But the man who has rung the bells for 30 years lay dead, and each side of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict accused the other of killing him.

For 30 years, Samir Ibrahim Salman had made his way dutifully to his task as bell ringer and caretaker at the fortress-like stone and wooden church revered by millions as the birthplace of Jesus Christ.

At dawn on Wednesday morning, the 45-year-old Palestinian Christian crossed Manger Square to get to the church to climb the steps to the fourth century bell tower as he did every day of the year.

Minutes later, Samir was struck by a bullet in the chest. It was an hour before an ambulance could reach him but by then, he was already dead. The Palestinians claim he was killed by an Israeli – the Israeli army says they did not fire a shot near the church.

More than 200 armed Palestinian have been holed up inside the basilica since Tuesday, surrounded by Israeli troops demanding their surrender. Trapped with them are dozens of Franciscan priests monks and nuns.

Samir, who was mentally disabled, may have been unaware of the danger.

Father Nicholas, one of the Franciscan monks trapped inside the church, told Italian radio yesterday: "He (Samir) didnt realise what was happening. They were used to going out and walking and ringing the bells. The Israelis certainly didn't make any distinction ... and so Samir was killed"

Despite his reputation as a quiet man who kept to himself Samir was known to thousands in Bethlehem and held in affection by the clergy he assisted.

He had a different set of chimes for every event being marked at the church, whether it was wedding a funeral or an important date on the Christian calendar.

Palestinian Christians make up about half of Bethlehem's 30,000 population. Samir was devoted to the church, spending hours every day inside its darkened cloisters removing candle wax from the floor or assisting the Greek Orthodox priests. The Greek Orthodox church is one of the three congregations that oversee the ancient basilica built over the spot where Christians believe Jesus was born.

Samir is said to have lived for the church. He had little money and few relatives. A cousin, Anton Salman, said "He was a simple guy. He never harmed any person. He never spoke to anyone, but if you asked for help, he would run to do whatever for you."

Yesterday, as Franciscan officials in Rome offered to mediate in the stand-off at the complex that houses the Church of the Nativity, Greek Orthodox church officials urged Israel not to try to storm one of Christianity's holiest sites, saying it could result in a "terrible massacre".

The stand-off began on Tuesday when the Palestinian fighters, who had been battling advancing Israeli troops, dashed to the church to take refuge from the bullets.

Besides the 40 Franciscan brothers in the basilica complex, there are four nuns and some 30 Orthodox and Armenian monks.

On Thursday, hours after Samir was gunned down, the Israeli army was accused by those inside the church of destroying a door into the complex despite repeated insistence that they had not made a move on the church.

A senior Vatican official, Archbishop John P Foley, said yesterday that he thought the violent developments and deaths in Bethlehem "must break (the Pope's) heart."

In the meantime, the death of Samir Ibrahim Salman is sure to resonate right across political and religious boundaries.