Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, American Christian and Jewish groups and the State Department are criticizing a decision by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) to place the Church of the Nativity on its list of sites of World Heritage in Danger, and to label the church as in “Palestine.” The Bethlehem site is built above the grotto where Jesus is believed to have been born and is a hugely popular tourist destination, drawing two million visitors in 2011.
The secret vote took place during UNESCO’s World Heritage Convention in St. Petersburg, Russia on Thursday. The tally was 13-6, with two abstentions.
The Palestinian Authority’s application for recognition of Jesus’ birthplace as Palestinian is being viewed by supporters of Israel as the latest effort to circumvent peace talks with Israel and obtain recognition as a sovereign state since its failed effort last fall at the UN Security Council. UNESCO accepted Palestine as a full member last year despite US opposition and the withholding of its funding.
Evidence to the political nature of the move, the Palestinians side-stepped the normal 18-month review process and asked that the church be fast-tracked through an emergency candidacy for World Heritage status. Its application also took pains to blame Israel for the disrepair of the site – citing the political situation since the 1967 war and the alleged lack of free movement – even though the city has been under Palestinian Authority control for 17 years.
Even the three churches – Armenian, Greek Orthodox, and Roman Catholic – which are custodians of the site opposed the Palestinian application.
What’s more, the UNESCO World Heritage Committee vote ignored the opinion of its own technical advisers and its secretariat which opposed pushing the application through an emergency fast-track.
Netanyahu issued a statement Saturday night slamming the UNESCO move:
“It has been proven that UNESCO is motivated by political, not cultural, considerations.
Instead of the Palestinians carrying out steps that will advance peace, they take unilateral steps that only push peace further away.
The world needs to remember that the Church of the Nativity, which is sacred to Christianity, has been desecrated in the past by Palestinian terrorists.”
Netanyahu was referring to the violent takeover in 2002 of the Church of the Nativity by armed Palestinian gunmen belonging to Fatah’s al Aqsa Martyrs’ Brigades. Several dozen terrorists armed with explosives and assault weapons broke into the church and took Christian clergy, lay workers and children hostage. A five week standoff ensued at which time Israeli forces used snipers to target the gunman and avoid damaging the church, while the Palestinian kidnappers booby-trapped the church with explosives, looted gold and valuable crucifixes and according to some reports tore up Bibles for use as toilet paper.
Christians United for Israel weighed in, posting a note on its Facebook page, asking visitors to:
Hit LIKE if you are OUTRAGED that the UN now recognizes the Church of the Nativity as part of “Palestine.” SHARE if you believe Jesus’ birthplace was Israel and not “Palestine!”
Anti-Defamation League National Director Abraham Foxman released a statement criticizing the UNESCO decision. While he does not dispute it is “a treasured and sacred site that could qualify for special status,” he agrees with UNESCO’s own expert panel that it does not fit the category for emergency care:
“the UNESCO World Heritage Committee has forsaken its responsibility for protecting the world’s most important and sacred sites, and has proven to be another hackneyed, politicized body.”
Foxman says the U.S. should “re-evaluate the value of remaining a member of UNESCO.”
The AP quoted U.S. ambassador to UNESCO David Killion who released a statement saying that the United States is “profoundly disappointed” by the World Heritage committee’s decision. “This body should not be politicized,” he said:
“The site clearly has tremendous religious and historical significance,” Killion’s statement said. “However, the emergency procedure used in this instance is reserved only for extreme cases.”
According to JTA, Reps. Howard Berman (D-Calif.), Shelley Berkley (D-N.V.) and Eliot Engel (D-N.Y.) sent a letter Thursday before the vote to Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov to urge him to oppose the resolution, writing:
“the Palestinians clearly are not motivated by technical concerns related to historical preservation, but rather are attempting to hijack the World Heritage process to further their own political objectives.”
“We do not believe UNESCO in general or the World Heritage Committee in particular is the appropriate forum for debating such contentious issues that have little to do with historic preservation,” the lawmakers wrote.
The Times of Israel reports on reaction from the Jewish group B’nai B’rith:
B’nai B’rith International President Allan J. Jacobs said that the “Palestinians have defamed Israel, and misappropriated a Christian holy site to this end, by insinuating that the wellbeing of the Church of the Nativity is threatened by Israel.”
Daniel S. Mariaschin, B’nai B’rith Executive Vice President, added that the “Palestinians have once again successfully politicized the UN system to serve their goals, importing tension and conflict into the world body and devaluing the World Heritage process.”
Even the Palestinian reaction revealed the political goal of the church application:
“This gives hope and confidence to our people in the inevitable victory of our just cause,” said PA Prime Minister Salam Fayyad in a statement following the decision.
“It increases their determination to continue efforts at deepening readiness for the establishment of an independent state of Palestine, with its capital in east Jerusalem, within the 1967 borders.”
The U.S. was not part of the 21-member panel that voted on the church’s status.