Palestinian Attempt to Secure Emergency ‘World Heritage’ Status for Bethlehem Church May Fail

Patrick Goodenough | June 15, 2012 | 4:52am EDT
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Bethlehem's Church of the Nativity (AP Photo)

( – A bid by the Palestinian Authority to use its new membership of the U.N. Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization to secure its first endangered “World Heritage” site – the traditional birthplace of Jesus in Bethlehem – appears to be in trouble.

The application for the Church of the Nativity to be declared in need of urgent U.N. protection is one of 36 due to be considered by UNESCO’s World Heritage Committee during a two-week session in St. Petersburg, Russia starting on June 24.

The bid is the first by the P.A. since UNESCO became the first U.N. agency to admit “Palestine” as a member last fall – a controversial move that forced the Obama administration to cut funding in line with U.S. law.

Although the Palestinian cause enjoys substantial support at UNESCO – “Palestine” was admitted by a 107-14 vote – and at the United Nations in general, its first World Heritage request has run into difficulties.

An expert body that evaluates applications for places of “outstanding universal value” to be declared World Heritage sites, the International Council on Monuments and Sites (ICOMOS), has recommended that it be turned down, disputing the P.A. claim that the ancient church is in such urgent need of protection that it should be deemed an emergency.

The P.A. put forward an “emergency nomination” of the site, claiming that it had “suffered from the result of armed conflict” and charging further that “[t]he lack of free movement imposed by the Israeli security forces is hampering the supply of appropriate materials.”

“Overall the combined effects of the consequences of the Israeli occupation and the lack of scientific and technical measures for restoring and preserving the property are creating an emergency situation that should be addressed by an emergency measure,” the application argued.

In its formal assessment, ICOMOS agreed that the church potentially has “outstanding universal value” but disagreed with the view that the matter was an emergency.

It conceded that the church “has suffered from the lack of maintenance and the lack of conservation” but also said that situation was a “longstanding” one.

“In conclusion, ICOMOS does not consider that the property can be considered to have been severely damaged or to be under imminent threat,” it said.

“ICOMOS does not consider that there is ‘any immediate action’ that could be taken by the Committee that ‘is necessary for the survival of the property,’” it added, citing the language in operational guidelines governing World Heritage evaluations.

As a result of the ICOMOS report, UNESCO has now prepared a draft text for the St. Petersburg meeting, saying the committee has decided not to add the Church of the Nativity to the World Heritage list “on an emergency basis.”

It invites the P.A. to “resubmit the nomination in accordance with normal procedures for nomination” – an assessment process likely to take much longer than the emergency one.

The draft decision will almost certainly be adopted at the meeting in Russia, although it may also spark heated political debates.

The 21-member committee includes countries strongly supportive of the P.A., such as Algeria, Cambodia, India, Iraq, Malaysia, Mali, Qatar, Russia, Senegal, Serbia, South Africa, Thailand and the United Arab Emirates.


“This is the first time in recent memory that a draft resolution circulated by the United Nations – let alone by UNESCO, which recently elected Assad’s Syria to its human rights committee – openly rejected a Palestinian claim or position,” commented Hillel Neuer, executive director of the Geneva-based group, U.N. Watch.

Neuer said the P.A. may not have realized that the World Heritage procedure is governed at some of its stages by independent, non-political experts.

“While there’s no question that holy places are valid heritage sites, the experts’ complete rejection of the Palestinian claims of danger to the church underscores the unfortunate manner in which [P.A.] President Mahmoud Abbas is improperly politicizing a vital process for protecting the world's culture,” he said.

Although this is the first time “Palestine” has been able to bring an application to UNESCO, its allies in the Arab world have for years used the agency to undermine Israel's cultural and historical connection to sites whose significance for Jews goes back thousands of years.

In Oct. 2010, for instance, UNESCO’s 58-member executive board passed a resolution regarding the traditional burial place in Hebron of biblical patriarchs Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.

It said the site was “an integral part of the occupied Palestinian territories and that any unilateral action by the Israeli authorities is to be considered a violation of international law, the UNESCO Conventions and the United Nations and Security Council resolutions.” The U.S. cast the only “no” vote.

Although Bethlehem is located in territory claimed by the Palestinians – and under P.A. administration since 1995 – its ancient history is Jewish.

As recounted in the Bible, Rachel – the wife of Jacob and mother of Joseph – died and was buried in Bethlehem, and it was the birthplace and place of anointing of King David, the second king of Israel. Jesus was born there, according to the Gospels, during the reign of King Herod, at a time when the Jewish kingdom was under Roman occupation.

Ironically, given the P.A. claims, the worst damage caused to the Church of the Nativity in recent years came from Palestinian militants.

During an Israeli military operation aimed at flushing out terrorists following a series of suicide bomb attacks in 2002, Palestinian gunmen holed up in the church and remained there under siege for 39 days, during which time the commander of Israeli forces in the area pledged not to harm the revered site.

Senior Vatican foreign policy official Archbishop Jean-Louis Tauran said in a radio interview during the crisis that the “status quo of the holy place of the Basilica of the Nativity has been violated by the Palestinians, who have sought refuge in its interior with arms.” (The church is jointly administered by the Roman Catholic, Greek Orthodox and Armenian churches.)

After the gunmen left the church under a European-brokered agreement, the Israeli military said it found 40 “explosive devices” inside the compound. Reporters described filth and the stench of urine, although no permanent harm was reported.

The gunmen included members of the Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades, affiliated with the Fatah faction of Abbas and then P.A. Chairman Yasser Arafat.

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