Palestinians want Church of Nativity to be first UNESCO site


The Palestinians’ quest to get Bethlehem’s Church of the Nativity named a UNESCO World Heritage site is set to dominate a meeting next week in Russia to decide who is accepted on the prestigious list.

The World Heritage Committee is meeting in Saint Petersburg from June 24 to July 6 and is to rule on the Palestinians’ first contentious application since they joined the U.N.’s cultural body in October last year.

The site, which includes the Pilgrimage Route, is one of 33 hoping to get the coveted designation of “exceptional universal value” and join the already long list of 936 places in 153 countries.

Applicants range from the “Carioca landscapes” in Rio de Janeiro to Grand-Bassam in Ivory Coast, passing via old mining sites in northern France and Belgium, Piedmont’s vineyards in Italy and Rabat in Morocco.

Five sites are natural: Chad’s Lakes of Ounianga, China’s Chengjian fossil site, the Sangha park straddling Congo, Cameroon and Central African Republic, the Western Ghats in India and the Lena Pillars Nature Park in Russia.

The Palestinians’ first request since they provoked the ire of Israel and the United States by joining UNESCO is “on an emergency basis” because of the fourth century site’s dilapidation after 50 years without restoration work.

The full site to be listed would be the “Birthplace of Jesus: Church of the Nativity and the Pilgrimage Route, Bethlehem,” UNESCO said, noting that it would be the first such site in the Israeli occupied Palestinian territories.

But the International Council on Monuments and Sites, which evaluates sites for UNESCO, earlier this month delivered a negative report that said the Palestinians had not carried out a full survey of threats to the site.

Palestinian ambassador Elias Sanbar however rejected that report, saying that “those who lost the battle in the vote on Palestine’s admission to UNESCO want to prevent us from exercising our rights”.

The report was “biased” and “politicised” and was influenced by the United States and Israel, which sought to block the Palestinians from joining UNESCO, Sanbar said.

The Palestinians were admitted to UNESCO in October, when its general assembly voted 107-14 to make Palestine its 195th member.

The result angered the United States, Israel’s staunch ally, which says the Palestinians must reach a peace agreement with the Jewish state before they can become full members of an international organization.

Israel and the United States subsequently cut funding to UNESCO, depriving the organization of 22 percent of its revenues.

The Church of the Nativity is the most visited tourist site in the Palestinian territories, welcoming 2 million visitors in 2011.

The 22-nation Heritage Committee will decide on the Palestinian bid with a vote and can go against the experts’ opinion.

Being anointed a World Heritage Site brings vast economic benefits in terms of funds for restoration and preservation and being able to display the coveted label is all but guaranteed to bring in more tourists.

But the main challenge today is preserving UNESCO sites threatened by lack of maintenance, uncontrolled tourism or rampant economic activity such as Australia’s Great Barrier Reef affected by a boom in mining and gas.