The Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem is one of the oldest continuously operating churches in the world. The original structure was built by Bishop Makarios of Jerusalem at the direction of Constantine I of the Roman Empire following the First Council of Nicaea in 325. That structure was burnt down in the Samaritan revolt of 529.
It is actually a combination of two churches, with a basement where many believe Jesus was born:
- The main section (the basilca) now being controlled by the Greek Orthodox. It is designed like a generic Roman basilica. With three aisles and an apse. Although presently in a state of decay, it once featured golden mosaics covering the side walls, and a Roman style floor (since covered over). It also features a large iconstasis, and a complex array of lamps throughout the entire church.
- The adjoining Roman Catholic church, which is done in a more modern gothic revival style, and has since been further modernized according to the liturgical trends after Vatican II.
- The underground cave, which features the altar over the place Jesus was said to have been born. The exact spot is marked by a hole in the middle of a silver star, surrounded by silver lamps. This altar is neutral although it features primarily Armenian Orthodox design.
Press reports were often unclear as to the status of civilians inside the compound, alternately saying that they were free to go or being held inside by either of the two sides (Arab militants and Israeli soldiers). Press reports indicated that the Israeli forces permitted unarmed civilians to leave but that they shot and killed one or more persons who upon leaving the church refused to submit to a weapons frisk.
Critics of the Israeli forces surrounding the compound said that their presence constituted a "siege" of the building. Supporters of the Israeli forces considered the term siege to be improperly applied, as it made the Israelis seem like the aggressors. These supporters considered the Arab militants inside the church to be the aggressors instead.
The 38-day stand-off came to an end on May 9 when the Palestinians inside agreed to have 13 suspected militants among them deported to several different countries.