U.S. Opposes Palestinians’ Urgent Bid to Have Church of the Nativity Listed As ‘World Heritage’ Site

Patrick Goodenough | June 27, 2012 | 5:00am EDT
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UNESCO Director-General Irina Bokova at the opening of the World Heritage Committee session in St. Petersburg, Russia this week. Flanking her are Russian Culture Minister Vladimir Medinsky and St. Petersburg governor Georgy Poltavchenko. (Photo: UNESCO)

(CNSNews.com) – The United States opposes any attempt to use the “World Heritage” process for political ends, a State Department official said Tuesday, as a U.N. committee mulls a Palestinian Authority bid to have the traditional birthplace of Jesus in Bethlehem recognized as an endangered World Heritage site.

The U.S. does not support the P.A.’s “emergency” application for the Church of the Nativity and nearby pilgrimage route to be declared in need of U.N. Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) protection, the official told CNSNews.com.

The Palestinian request has already received a thumbs down from an independent expert body that evaluates such requests on behalf of UNESCO’s World Heritage Committee (WHC).

In its recommendation to the WHC, the International Council on Monuments and Sites (ICOMOS) disputed the P.A. assertion that the need for protection for the ancient church is so urgent that it should be deemed an emergency. It suggested that the application be made under normal – rather than emergency – procedures.

The P.A. bid, which comes nine months after UNESCO became the first U.N. agency to admit “Palestine” as a full member, also lacks the support of three denominations that jointly administer the site, the Roman Catholic, Greek Orthodox and Armenian churches.

In a letter to P.A. chairman Mahmoud Abbas, local heads of the three denominations said while they saw no reason why the surrounding area should not be designated, “we do not think it opportune to deal with this request that the Basilica and its entire complex be included in the list of World Heritage sites, due to different considerations,” including the fact the “operating conditions” required by UNESCO do not exist.

But the P.A. is pressing ahead with its application at the WHC’s annual meeting, now underway in St. Petersburg, Russia. And its bid drew the backing Tuesday of 24 educational, municipal and religious bodies in the Bethlehem area which, in an open letter to WHC members, accused Israel of carrying out “deliberate” military attacks against the town and its churches.

“After 45 years of illegal Israeli occupation, a window of opportunity has been opened: countries like yours can make a difference and invest in peace by recognizing the State of Palestine on the 1967 border and support our effort to protect our city, Bethlehem, and list it as World Heritage in Danger,” the letter said. “This is our overdue right.”

The U.S. is not on the 21-member WHC, but some of its members – including Algeria, Cambodia, India, Iraq, Malaysia, Mali, Qatar, Russia, Senegal, Serbia, South Africa, Thailand and the United Arab Emirates – are traditionally supportive of Palestinian causes.

The U.S. is, however, attending the two-week session in St. Petersburg as an observer, the State Department official said.

“We have a long history of supporting the excellent work of the World Heritage Program, and strongly oppose any attempts to politicize the process and the work of the committee.”

The official said the U.S. “does not support immediate emergency action to inscribe the Church of the Nativity as a World Heritage site,” a position that is consistent with the ICOMOS recommendation.

“The emergency procedure is reserved only for extreme cases, for example when a site is under imminent threat of destruction,” she said.

‘Muslim prophet’

That the P.A. move is at least partly political appears evident from the wording of the official application, which makes no reference to the Jewish heritage of Bethlehem, the burial place of Rachel – the wife of Jacob and mother of Joseph – as well as the birthplace and place of anointing of King David, the second king of Israel, 1,000 years before Jesus was born there.

It focuses instead on the significance of the site to Christians – and Muslims.

“Jesus’ role as Issa, the divinely inspired prophet in Islamic belief, is equally significant and underscores the sanctity of the place,” the application states.

“Christianity, a worldwide religion, associates the birth of ‘the Savior’ and ‘the Son of God’ with the town of Bethlehem, than which [sic], therefore, nowhere can be more holy,” it says. “It is a place for all the Christians of the world. That Jesus was also Issa, a Muslim prophet, gives the place additional outstanding value, a particularly iconic one in the early 21st century.”

Islamic scriptures teach that Jesus was a prophet – not divine – and say that he was not crucified (Qur’an 4:157). Elsewhere (9:30) the Qur’an states, “the Christians say: The Messiah is the son of Allah … may Allah destroy them.”

“The drive to have the Church of the Nativity recognized as a global heritage site is nothing short of offensive,” Christine Williams, a senior advisor at the Gatestone Institute in New York, wrote on Tuesday.

“Christians have been driven out of their ancestral lands; Palestinians have shown nothing but hostility to both Christians and Jews,” she said. “Moreover, Christ himself was a Jew.”

According to P.A. foreign minister Riyad al-Malki, who is attending the WHC session, the Bethlehem application is in line with the P.A.’s aim “to activate Palestine’s membership in the UNESCO and preserve cultural and natural sites in Palestine.”

The P.A.’s official WAFA news service reports that the P.A. “has a primary list of around 20 Palestinian sites in the West Bank and Gaza, including East Jerusalem, to inscribe on the world heritage list.”

Palestinian officials have long sought to downplay Jewish heritage in Hebron – the burial place of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and Sarah, and the capital of the kingdom of Israel for seven years before King David moved to Jerusalem (2 Samuel 5).

Jerusalem’s Jewish heritage, meanwhile, has been disputed entirely by some Palestinian political and religious leaders, and the late PLO chairman Yasser Arafat in 2000 reportedly refused a request by President Clinton to acknowledge that revered Islamic mosques in Jerusalem were built on the site of the biblical Temples, Judaism’s holiest site.

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