In Bethlehem, Altar Boy's Death Brings Conflict Home

Lee Hockstader

Washington Post Foreign Service

BETHLEHEM, West Bank, Oct. 21 -- Apple-cheeked Johnny Thalgieh, an altar boy who hoped to become a priest, died near the place he loved best.

His blood still cakes the polished paving stones a few paces from Bethlehem's Church of the Nativity, considered the birthplace of Jesus, where Johnny spent much of his life. That's where he was struck in the

chest Saturday by a large-caliber bullet, apparently fired from an Israeli position on a ridge a half-mile away with a clear line of sight into Manger Square.

When he was hit, at dusk, he was playing with his 4-year-old cousin Michael, hoisting him skyward and then setting him down. A burst of fire raked Manger Square from the southeast -- the one exposed corner of the enclosed stone-faced plaza. Johnny cried out. He fell, rolled three times and died on the spot.

He was 17 years old, good-natured and full of laughter, a Palestinian Christian who grew up practically in the church's shadow. He was an altar boy from age 8, ran errands and fetched food for the clergymen and spent his free time peddling postcards to tourists and pilgrims just outside the church doors.

"From a young age he was always at the church, always willing to help," said the Rev. Theophanis, a gray-bearded Greek Orthodox priest. "He was loving toward every human being, a gift he received from God. We said his heart was as a diamond or gold. . . . I feel I have lost one of my family."

In the past few days, Israel has launched its broadest offensive into Palestinian territory in years, penetrating or surrounding virtually every major urban area in the West Bank in what it calls a battle against terrorism.

Until now, the little town of Bethlehem had been on the periphery of the fighting, much of its predominantly Arab Christian population preferring a political solution to armed uprising.

This morning around 8:30, as parishioners gathered for Mass in the Church of St. Catherine, which adjoins the Church of the Nativity, two bullets hit the apse's high windows, spraying the worshipers with splinters of glass.

All day, the crack of sniper fire and concussive thump of heavy machine-gun fire resounded through the streets. This evening, Israeli tanks moved within three or four blocks of Manger Square and engaged in heavy firefights with Palestinian militiamen. A downtown shopping arcade was reported to be on fire.

Even the main public hospital became a target. Palestinian journalists said at least one Israeli tank shell exploded in the hospital's courtyard this afternoon, killing a policeman and injuring others. This evening, the hospital's emergency room was struck by automatic weapons fire, hospital officials said.

At the Vatican, Pope John Paul II said today he had received "with deep sadness" the news of Johnny Thalgieh's death and the fighting in Bethlehem and surrounding towns. "War and death arrived even on the square of the Basilica of the Nativity of Our Lord," the pope said during his noon prayer inside St. Peter's Basilica.

Hundreds of Palestinian fighters have gathered in Bethlehem to resist Israel's advance, and the fighting here is heavier than in any of the other cities into which Israeli forces have penetrated in recent days. There have been civilian casualties, and in Bethlehem, they have included three Palestinian Christians -- the first to die in the year-long conflict.

On Saturday afternoon, Johnny had come from vespers at the church and was loitering in the square as a crystalline day faded to dark. He was munching sunflower seeds when he ran into his cousin Elias Thalgieh and his little boy Michael.

They chatted and played in front of the plaza's Il Bambino restaurant, a tourist place that is shuttered like almost every commercial establishment in town these days. They paid no attention to the ridgeline a half-mile away, a hill the Palestinians call el-Hindaza, where at least two Israeli tanks and an armored vehicle have taken positions and remain visible. The tanks are mounted with heavy machine guns that are accurate, long-range weapons.

There was heavy fighting elsewhere in Bethlehem, but Manger Square seemed the closest thing to a sanctuary. Not only was the square physically enclosed; no one imagined that anyone would train their gun sights on so revered a place.

"We always felt safe on Manger Square," said Elias, 36, a tile layer. "I always took my child there. But it's not as safe as we thought. I think the Israelis just want to kill as many people as possible. Now we feel there is no safe place -- not at church, not at home and nowhere else."

Elias and others who were around Manger Square said there had been no fighting or gunfire before Johnny was hit. The plaza was one of the few places in Bethlehem, maybe the only one, where large groups of people were gathered. Israeli officials say Palestinian gunmen had been firing automatic weapons and mortars from around various Christian holy places in Bethlehem, including the Church of the Nativity.

"Unfortunately you have pattern here of using the Christian holy sites as firing points by [Palestinian militants] for mortars and automatic weapons fire," said Dore Gold, an adviser to Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon.

At Johnny's wake this afternoon, his father, Joseph Thalgieh, sat beside a black-hatted priest at the Greek Orthodox Club, a block from Manger Square. Unshaven, his eyes red-rimmed and raw, he greeted mourners in a hoarse voice and tried to make sense of his son's death.

"He wanted to be a priest, go to theological school," said Joseph Thalgieh. "There is no sense to make out of this, except it's a vicious crime. We can't even say that it's God's will or fate. . . .

"He had taken his afternoon nap. Then he tried to get his computer working, which he couldn't. He went up to the square for vespers. Then he was on his way back home."

Today, Johnny would have been with the priests in the Church of the Nativity for morning Mass, in his usual role as altar boy. Some of Johnny's friends sometimes threw stones at the Israeli soldiers near the entrance of Bethlehem, but they said Johnny never did. He was different.

"He just wasn't violent like that," said Ibrahim Abdullah, 20, a Muslim from the neighborhood. "But we liked him anyway."

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