Army’s Tax Battle with Beit Sahur Now Spreads to the Religious Sphere

The tax revolt by the mainly Christian Arab residents of the West Bank town of Beit Sahur took on a religious dimension over the weekend that could have serious consequences for Israel in world public opinion.

The Israel Defense Force has cut the town off from all outside contacts for more than a month in what it considers a test of strength with the Palestinian uprising.

But last Friday, the IDF found itself in confrontation, not with the intifada leadership, but with the patriarchs of the Latin, Greek Orthodox and Armenian churches, who had come from Jerusalem to challenge the blockade and pray in solidarity with the townspeople.

When they were not permitted to enter Beit Sahur as a delegation, they accused the Israeli authorities of preventing them from holding religious services.

The group was headed by Diodoros I, the Greek Orthodox patriarch of Jerusalem, who is considered one of the friendliest toward Israel of the senior Christian clergy in Jerusalem. It included Michael Sabah, the Latin or Roman Catholic patriarch, who is a Palestinian.

Diodoros returned alone on Sunday and was allowed to enter Beit Sahur. But the damage may already have been done.

MASS PRAYER SERVICES PLANNED

On Friday, he and his colleagues refused an IDF offer to enter Beit Sahur singly. Instead, they held a news conference at a nearby monastery, where they vowed to bring the issue to worldwide attention.

“No conditions can be put on prayer,” Sabah declared.

Considerable media attention already has been focused on the IDF’s moves to bar foreign consuls and Arab Knesset members from the town, cut phone lines to the town, and confiscate personal property that the townspeople say is far in excess of the amount of taxes owed.

The residents of Beit Sahur have now invited world leaders, including President Bush, to send representatives to attend mass prayer services in the town next Sunday.

They already smuggled out a videotape of Friday services at the local Roman Catholic church for television broadcast worldwide.

If hundreds of worshipers are forcibly kept out of Beit Sahur next week, that will attract further media attention.

It would also give the intifada leadership more ammunition for its drive to spread the tax revolt, which so far has had minimal success.

The intifada’s Unified Command is urging residents of Ramallah, a much larger town, to emulate Beit Sahur.

They have not complied, at least in part because of Defense Minister Yitzhak Rabin’s warning earlier this month that the authorities are determined to end the revolt, however long it might take.

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