Palestinians Appeal to UNESCO as Bethlehem's Church of the Nativity Faces a Preservation "Crisis"

Palestinians Appeal to UNESCO as Bethlehem's Church of the Nativity Faces a Preservation "Crisis"
Church of the Nativity, as seen from Bethlehem's municipality building
(Photo: Musa Al-Shaer/AFP/Getty Images)

When UNESCO's World Heritage Committee begins meeting in St. Petersburg today, the agenda will include considering nominations of 36 sites for the World Heritage List. This sounds like business as usual — except that one of those sites has unusual historical, religious, and political resonance: the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem. It is Palestine's first nomination to the list, and, not unexpectedly, the issue has quickly become politicized.

Palestine became a member of UNESCO in October 2011, raising the ire of the U.S., which subsequently canceled all funding of the organization, costing UNESCO an $80 million annual contribution, or 22 percent of its yearly budget. One of Palestine's first actions upon being granted membership in the organization was to ask that the Church of the Nativity be named a World Heritage site on an emergency basis, but the International Council on Monuments and Sites (ICOMOS), which advises UNESCO on the nominated sites, rejected the request. In its draft decision, available on UNESCO's Web site, the World Heritage Committee stated that the application did not meet the required conditions of "damage or serious and specific dangers to the Church of the Nativity that make its condition an emergency that needs to be addressed... with immediate action necessary for the survival of the property." This rejection notwithstanding, the church's nomination will still be discussed at the St. Petersburg conference. 

Elias Sanbar, Palestinian ambassador to UNESCO, called ICOMOS's report "biased" and "politicized," saying that "those who lost the battle in the vote on Palestine's admission to UNESCO want to prevent us from exercising our rights," AFP reports. And, in fact, in a recent Jerusalem Post article, Tovah Lazaroff writes that "efforts are underway to block" the Palestinian request, citing an unnamed Israeli official who says that Israel opposes all unilateral efforts by Palestine until a two-state solution is reached by both parties. 

Despite ICOMOS's assessment that immediate action is unncessary, by all accounts the church seems to have dire problems. A Smithsonian Magazine article from March 2009 described a rotting roof, with "holes in the timbers [that] allow dirty water to drip upon the precious paintings and mosaics below." "The situation at the Church of the Nativity is strictly a crisis," Jaroslav Folda, an art historian and professor emeritus at UNC Chapel Hill who has studied the church's Crusader paintings, told ARTINFO France in an email. "The roof is leaking, the mosaics and icons on the columns of the nave are being damaged by soot and leakage. The church has been damaged by violence and a fire was set inside it at some point when it was occupied some years ago."

Bethlehem is located on the West Bank, about five miles south of Jerusalem, and legend has is that the Church of the Nativity was built over the cave where Jesus was born. The earliest church at the site was built in the fourth century by Emperor Constantine, but, when it was destroyed in a revolt in 529, Emperor Justinian built the church that still exists today. The Church of the Nativity is managed by the Greek Orthodox Church, the Armenian Orthodox Church, and the Roman Catholic Church — not always harmoniously. Clergy occasionally come to blows over who has the right to clean certain areas of the church, since tradition holds that each part belongs to the sect that cares for it.

A UNESCO document on Palestinian cultural heritage recommends that UNESCO's World Heritage Centre and ICOMOS undertake a mission to assess the state of conservation of the main Palestinian cultural sites, including the Church of the Nativity. According to this document, such a mission has previously been proposed but "no answer has been received to its request." This reprimand may suggest that the committee will not grant the site World Heritage status this time around. Plus, all 21 states serving on the committee would need to agree. "The committee usually approves decisions unanimously," UNESCO spokesperson Roni Amelan told ARTINFO France via email. "Voting is very exceptional."