BETHLEHEM (Ma'an) -- Dozens joined a sit-in in the southern occupied West Bank city of Bethlehem on Sunday to mark the 15th anniversary of the deadly Israeli siege of the Nativity Church, as well as express solidarity with tens of Palestinians who were deported from the West Bank following the 39-day Israeli blockade of the holy site.
Around 220 locals, including several dozen resistance fighters and 40 priests and nuns, sought sanctuary inside the church on April 2, 2002 when Israeli tanks surrounded Bethlehem during the Second Intifada.
The siege on the site, believed to be Jesus' birthplace, sparked outrage in the Vatican, as monks sheltering inside pleaded for international assistance.
The Israeli military shocked the world by attacking the church, killing eight Palestinians and injuring 27.
The siege came to an end on May 10, when the Israelis struck a deal with Palestinian leaders that ultimately saw 39 Palestinians who had sought sanctuary in the church exiled to Gaza and Europe.
Family members and friends of the deportees, as well as personalities and representatives of political factions, attended the sit-in on Sunday outside of the church on Manger Square.
Fatah Revolutionary Council member Muhammad Lahham -- who also works for Ma’an news channel -- delivered a speech during the sit-in in memory of the eight people who were killed by Israeli forces, and hailed three monks who were wounded by Israeli soldiers "who turned a blind eye to their religious position."
Lahham also urged Palestinian leadership to "work seriously" on the international stage and during negotiations with Israel to obtain the return of the deportees back home.
Over the past 15 years, the deportees have appealed to the Palestinian Authority, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, the international community, and other organizations to convince Israel to allow them back to the West Bank, where their families remain.
Fatah Revolutionary Council member Kifah Harb, whose husband Abdullah Daoud was one of the Nativity Church deportees and died in Algiers in 2010, told the protesters about her bitter experience.
"Everybody must make serious and real efforts to help the deportees who have the right to return to their homeland as soon as possible," she said.