The United Nations Educational, Social and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) voted Friday to designate the Bethlehem Nativity Church and pilgrimage route as a World Heritage site, which will provide the Palestinian Authority with funding to maintain and restore the sites.Palestinian legislator Hanan Ashrawi, head of the Department of Culture and Information for the Palestine Liberation Organization, said Friday that the decision is “a welcome recognition by the international community of our historical and cultural rights in this land.”
Originally, the bid for a World Heritage site in historic Palestine had been led by the village of Battir, whose residents use a thousand year old Roman irrigation system to water their crops. That irrigation system, and the integrity of the village as a whole, is under threat by the imminent construction of the Israeli Annexation Wall through the village.
However, once the Palestinian Authority was contacted about the bid, officials there decided to lobby for a more high-profile and well-known site: the Church of Nativity, constructed in 200 AD on the site where Christians believe that Jesus was born.
In her statement, Ashrawi added that the decision by UNESCO to list the Nativity Church as an endangered site “emphasizes that Israel must be bound by international law and treaties, particularly pertaining to its illegal and detrimental measures as a belligerent occupant and as a major threat to the safety and the responsible preservation of that important segment of human civilization in Palestine.”
Israeli officials criticized the designation, claiming that it was a political move by UNESCO aimed at delegitimizing Israel. In a statement from the Israeli Prime Minister’s office, Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu stated, “The world should remember that the Church of the Nativity, which is sacred to Christians, was desecrated in the past by Palestinian terrorists.” This was in reference to the Israeli siege on the Church of Nativity in 2002, when Israeli tanks and troops invaded the area and shot live ammunition and tank shells at the church, killing the bell ringer and a number of others. Although Palestinian civilians, clerics and fighters did take refuge in the Church of the Nativity during the Israeli siege, church officials have noted that the refuge-seekers did not cause damage, while the Israeli military assault on the church caused extensive damage.