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UNESCO names Church of Nativity as first Palestinian World Heritage site

Fayyad says listing Bethlehem Church under 'Palestine' is a Palestinian victory and a triumph of justice: vote was criticized by some nations as mixing politices with culture.

By Associated Press         29 June 2012

Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem Dec. 24, 2010 (AP)

Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem                  Photo by AP

UNESCO's World Heritage committee on Thursday approved a Palestinian bid to place the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem on its list of sites of World Heritage in Danger - a move seen by some nations as dangerously mixing politics and culture.

Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad said that the decision is of international importance for the future Palestinian state and that it places it in line with the nations and cultures of the world. Fayyad has also stated that he views the vote as a Palestinian victory and a triumph of justice.

Palestinian spokesman Hanan Ashrawi said the vote was an affirmation of Palestinian sovereignty over the site which marks the place where Christians believe Jesus was born.

The 21-member committee, meeting in St. Petersburg, Russia, voted 13 to 6 to include the church and pilgrimage route, located in the Israeli-controlled West Bank, on its list of sites. There were two abstentions.

The United States and Israel, neither of which is on the committee, were among nations opposed to the Palestinian proposal of an emergency candidacy for the iconic Christian site, shortcutting what is usually an 18-month-long process to apply for World Heritage recognition.

The Prime Minister's Office criticized UNESCO's decision to recognize the Church of Nativity as a Palestinian heritage site.

"This is proof that UNESCO is acting out of political considerations and not cultural ones," a statement released by the PMO read. "The world must remember that the Church of Nativity, which is sacred to Christians, was desecrated in the past by Palestinian terrorists."

Foreign Ministry spokesman Yigal Palmor said that Israel did not oppose listing the Church of Nativity as a World Heritage site, but said that at some point, the move turned completely into a political step against Israel.

The church - which drew some 2 million visitors last year and parts of which are 1,500 years old - stands above the grotto that Christians believe was the birthplace of Jesus. The Palestinians' application asks for recognition as a site of "outstanding universal value" urgently in need of attention.

The application cited lack of regular restoration of the church due to the political situation since 1967 when Israel occupied the territories, and difficulties procuring equipment because of lack of free movement imposed by Israeli forces.

The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization voted to admit Palestine as a full member in October. The emergency candidacy for the church clearly showed the Palestinian's intention of making the most of their position, after a failure to join the main UN body because Palestine is not a recognized state.

The Palestinians bid to place the Church on the list showed that they plan to put forward other sites for the prestigious World Heritage recognition, eventually linking various landmarks to the life of Jesus.

"The message to Israel today is that unilateral actions will not work and that Israel cannot continue challenging the world despite its powerful allies," Palestinian spokeswoman Hanan Ashrawi said.

Many American Jewish leaders criticized the decision on Friday.

Abraham Foxman, the Anti-Defamation League's national director, said that UNESCO "bowed to a politicized Palestinian bid" and therefore the U.S. should re-evaluate the value of remaining a member of UNESCO.

American Jewish Committee Executive Director David Harris also regretted the decision, saying that "if this important Christian religious site is threatened, PA leadership must take responsibility.”

U.S. Rep. Howard Berman (D-CA) said that the vote was not about the Church of Nativity, but rather "just another attempt by the Palestinians to make an end run around direct peace negotiations with Israel."

The U.S. ambassador to UNESCO, David Killion, said the United States is "profoundly disappointed" by the World Heritage committee's decision. "This body should not be politicized," he said.

His statement noted the candidacy was opposed by a UNESCO experts committee, whose conclusions are almost always heeded.

The three churches acting as custodians of the site had also been opposed.

"The site clearly has tremendous religious and historical significance," Killion's statement said. "However, the emergency procedure used in this instance is reserved only for extreme cases."

The drive to get the Nativity church quickly recognized as a World Heritage site is part of the Palestinians' bid to win international recognition since attempts to establish a Palestinian state through negotiations with Israel are frozen. The Church of the Nativity drew some 2 million visitors last year. It is built above the grotto widely believed by Christians to be the site where Jesus was born.

While the church needs restoration, including repair of a leaky roof, it was not seen by the experts committee as being in imminent threat of destruction - the criteria usually reserved for the emergency procedure.

Avi Issacharoff, Barak Ravid, and Natasha Mozgovaya contributed to this report