Reports that Israel is considering allowing a group of gunmen who were deported in 2002 after hiding inside the Church of the Nativity to return home have left some Christian residents here seriously concerned for their safety.

Thirteen of the gunmen were deported to different European countries, while another 26 were expelled to the Gaza Strip. The gunmen, belonging to both Fatah and Hamas, were holed up in the church for 39 days before European mediators reached a deal with Israel according to which the fugitives would be permitted to walk out unharmed.

On Saturday, Palestinian Authority negotiator Saeb Erekat announced that the deportees would soon be allowed to return to Bethlehem. The announcement was made following the summit between Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and PA Chairman Mahmoud Abbas in Jerusalem.

While most Muslim residents here welcomed the news about the impending return of the gunmen, some Christian families expressed fear that the deportees would once again impose a reign of intimidation and terror in the city.

“What a wonderful Christmas gift from Father Christmas, Ehud Olmert,” commented a local businessman. “These men were responsible for a spate of attacks on Christians, including extortion and confiscation of property.”

He said the biggest threat came from those gunmen belonging to Fatah’s armed wing, the Aksa Martyrs Brigades, whose members often targeted “peaceful” Christians.

“I’m aware that most Christians living here are afraid to speak publicly about the issue, but the overwhelming majority was not unhappy when these thugs were deported from the city,” he added. “Now some people here are once again worried because of the reports that they will return. They remember all the bad things that happened to the Christians when these gunmen were roaming the streets. People also remember how the gunmen mistreated the monks and nuns who were held hostage during the raid.”

The families of the Bethlehem deportees have been campaigning for the past four years to allow their sons to return home. The issue has been raised several times during meetings between Israeli and PA officials, but no solution was ever found.

Former prime minister Ariel Sharon agreed at the 2005 Sharm e-Sheikh summit with Abbas to the formation of a joint committee that would discuss and solve the problem of the deportees.

Mary, who works in a local tourist agency, said not all the deportees were involved in anti-Christian actions.

“Some of them were good boys, but there were a few who used their guns and rifles for criminal purposes,” said the 44-year-old woman. “Some residents are now worried that these guys will return to the streets of Bethlehem. We heard that one of them, who is now in Europe, was involved in the murder of two Christian sisters in Beit Jala.”

Tony [not his real name], who owns a small souvenir shop near Manger Square, said he and many of his fellow Christians used to live in fear when the gunmen were around.

“They used to take cigarettes and other goods for free from my neighbors,” he recalled. “When they were deported from the city, there was a sigh of relief not only among Christians, but some Muslims as well. Let’s hope that when they come back, they will return to normal life.”

The few Christians who agreed to go on the record had only words of praise for the gunmen.

“They are heroes,” said Bishara Hazboun, a 22-year-old university student. “There’s no difference between Christians and Muslims and we are all one people. Some people have been trying to defame the fighters by spreading all kinds of lies against them. I never saw them do any harm.”