updated 11/25/2006 2:20:22 PM ET 2006-11-25T19:20:22

The pastor at Anchorage First Free Methodist Church was mystified. Why was the activist group People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals chastising him? No animals are harmed in the church's holiday nativity display. In fact, animals aren't used at all.

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People, however, do dress the parts — Mary, Joseph, the wise men, etc. The volunteers stand shivering at a manger on the church lawn in a silent tribute to Christmas.

The Rev. Jason Armstrong was confused by an e-mail this week from PETA, which admonished him for subjecting animals "to cruel treatment and danger," by forcing them into roles in the church's annual manger scene.

"We've never had live animals, so I just figured this was some spam thing," Armstrong said. "It's rough enough on us people standing out there in the cold. So we're definitely not using animals."

Jackie Vergerio, PETA's captive animals in entertainment specialist, said her organization tracks churches nationwide that use real animals in "living nativity scenes."

Confusion about 'living nativity'
Seems the confusion started with the church's choice of phrase. PETA flagged Free Methodist's display as a "living nativity," and indeed, that's how the church describes it on its Web site.

To PETA, that means animals.

"Those animals are subject to all sorts of terrible fates in some cases," Vergerio said. "Animals have been stolen and slaughtered, they've been raped, they've escaped from the nativity scenes and have been struck by cars and killed. Just really unfathomable things have happened to them."

In the letter to Armstrong, Vergerio shared some sad fates of previous nativity animals — like Brighty the donkey, snatched from a nativity scene in Virginia and beaten by three young men. Ernie the camel fled a creche in Maryland but was struck and killed by a car. Two sheep and a donkey had to be euthanized after a dog mauling at a manger scene in Virginia.

Free Methodist's display is peaceful, Armstrong said. The congregation erects the stable. Members spread straw and don costumes. Some even dress as manger animals.

"We have some puppet camel things we put out," Armstrong said. "We have a cow hood thing that a person will wear that actually just looks spooky."

The volunteers stand beneath a brightly lit electric star as Christmas music fills the frosty air. They don't even speak.

"No one's come by protesting or thrown bloodstained fur at us or anything," Armstrong said. "We even use a plastic baby."

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