BETHLEHEM (West Bank): Palestinians hope to persuade UNESCO this weekend to declare parts of Bethlehem and its Church of the Nativity endangered World Heritage sites in order to expedite funding for repairs.
Debate on the highly politicised issue is due to start on Friday at an annual meeting of the global cultural organisation’s World Heritage Committee in St. Petersburg, Russia, with a vote possible on Saturday or Sunday.
The 4th century church – built over a grotto where Christian tradition says Jesus was born – needs repairs, especially to its roof, and the Palestinian Authority, which exercises limited self-rule in the Israeli-occupied West Bank, is short of funds.
It has come up with only US$3 million dollars for renovations, a small fraction of promised international aid. Palestinian officials said a decision by UNESCO to recognise the church as an endangered site would get money to Bethlehem faster.
The nomination request includes a short section of the Pilgrimage Route, the path which tradition says Joseph and Mary took into the city in their trek from Nazareth 2,000 years ago.
Palestinian civic groups, in a letter to UNESCO, pointed to what they describe as the dangers of Israeli occupation, citing in particular Israel’s 2002 siege of the Church of the Nativity where militants took sanctuary during a Palestinian uprising.
Violence has subsided dramatically in recent years and more than 2 million people now visit the church annually.
But independent experts sent by UNESCO to examine the church recommended turning down the request, saying that while the church roof needed patching up the shrine cannot be considered “to have been severely damaged or to be under imminent threat”.
“We are living under occupation,” said Bethlehem’s deputy mayor, George Saade. “Bethlehem is surrounded by a wall. Economically, we cannot work freely. We need assistance from UNESCO.”
He was referring to a West Bank barrier built by Israel during the uprising with the declared aim of stopping suicide bombers from reaching its cities. Palestinians say the project is an attempt to grab land they want for a Palestinian state.
In Jerusalem, Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesman Yigal Palmor objected to the Palestinian claim that Bethlehem sites are in imminent danger.
“The real purpose here is not really UNESCO support, but simply to bash Israel again,” Palmor said. “We have no objection whatsoever to the inclusion of the Nativity Church. The Palestinians are looking for a conflict at any cost.”
If the emergency bid is rejected, the Palestinian Authority plans to go through the normal application process for World Heritage recognition.
Last year, UNESCO granted the Palestinians full membership, a decision seen at the time as a boost to their bid, since largely stalled, to win unilateral statehood recognition from the United Nations in the absence of peace talks with Israel.
Israel and the United States, which subsequently cut off its US$80 million annual funding of UNESCO, condemned the decision, saying peace negotiations – which collapsed in 2010 – were the only path to a Palestinian state.