Church of the Nativity Added to World Heritage List, Controversy Continues
By Ruth Miyake - Crossmap On July 1, 2012
The Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem was added to UNESCO's World Heritage List on Friday, making history as the first World Heritage site in the Palestinian Territories.
At the meeting in St. Petersburg, Russia, the 21-member World Heritage Committee voted 13-6 to include the church, which is believed as the birthplace of Jesus Christ, as well as pilgrimage route in the West Bank of Israel.
The United States and Israel opposed it, and two nations abstained.
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Israel angrily denounced the vote, with Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Ilana Stein saying the decision "has turned UNESCO into a theater of the absurd," reported Reuters
"This is a sad day for the World Heritage Committee," Stein said.
Israel has said that it is not opposed to the church’s listing as a world heritage site, but that it objects to what it calls the Palestinians’ using Unesco as a political tool against Israel.
"This is proof that UNESCO is motivated by political considerations and not cultural ones," said a statement by the Israeli prime minister's office.
Rather than the church's listing as a world heritage site, Israel is opposed to the fact that the Palestinians are using UNESCO as a political tool against Israel.
"Instead of taking steps to advance peace, the Palestinians are acting unilaterally in ways that only distance it," the statement said.
On the other hand, Palestinian Foreign Minister Riyad Malki views it as "the beginning of the end of the Israeli occupation."
"Now we are responsible for our cultural and historical sites as part of human civilization as a whole," Hanan Ashrawi, a member of the Palestine Liberation Organization's executive committee who leads its Department of Culture and Information, told CNN.
"Politically it is important, because it is the beginning of the loosening of the control of the Israeli occupation on our land, on our lives, on our culture and at all attempts of confiscation and distortion of our cultural heritage and reality."
Palestine was granted its membership to UNESCO in October 2011 with a 107-14 vote from its General Assembly, while controversies remained with the United States, which seeks for a peace deal with Israel before the Palestinian Territories could receive full membership from the United Nations and its affiliate organizations.
The Church of the Nativity is among the oldest operating churches in the world, and its religious significance makes Bethlehem the Palestinian Territories' top visitor destination.
The site drew 2 million visitors in 2011, according to Nada Atrash, an architect and head of the research and training unit at Bethlehem's Center for Cultural Heritage Preservation.
The church is administered jointly by three churches - Roman Catholic, Greek Orthodox and Armenian Apostolic churches.