The Palestinian Authority is still scrambling to find the necessary support for
Friday’s vote to register the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem under the name
of Palestine as a World Heritage Site.
It needs the approval of
two-thirds of the 21 countries present at Friday’s meeting of the World Heritage
Committee in St. Petersburg, Russia. The technical details of the bid to
help preserve Jesus’s birthplace are based on the site’s religious, cultural and
But approval also has strong symbolic and diplomatic
significance for the Palestinians, who see it as part of their continued bid for
unilateral recognition of statehood. If the bid is accepted, it would mark the first time
that a World Heritage site has been registered under the name of
“We believe that the moral majority will be with the
Palestinians,” said Omar Awadallah, who heads the United Nations department in
the PA Foreign Ministry.
He spoke Wednesday during a media tour of the
church and the nearby pilgrims’ route organized by the PLO’s Negotiations
Affairs Department in advance of the Friday’s vote.
Inside the dimly lit
stone church, visitors looked down at remnants of its Roman tile floor or up at
the wooden 15th century rafters. But outside, under the bright summer sun, the
talk was about politics.
“This is a vote for self determination for the
Palestinian people,” Awadallah said. Countries that support that right will vote
in favor of the church, he added.
Bethlehem Deputy Mayor George Saade
added that “it is our right to protect our heritage.”
Placing the church
on the list would grant it international legal protection from modern
development and provide funding for necessary repairs.
believe it would boost tourism, which they say is flagging.
“If it is
recognized as a World Heritage Site, people will see that it is still here.
Bethlehem has been taken off from many of the tourist agendas, programs and
itineraries,” tour guide George Rishmawi said, as he stood on a small winding
stone street that led to the church.
The PA only received the right to
bid for registration of sites in the Palestinian territories in March, too late
to bring the church forward through the normal registration process. It was
therefore added onto the list as an endangered site through an emergency
procedure. The Palestinians have argued that among other things, the church was
in danger due to the fact that it was under Israeli military control and
therefore located in a situation of conflict.
The Word Heritage Committee
and the International Council on Monuments and Sites have recommended that the
21 member countries reject the PA bid, because they believe the church does not
qualify for emergency consideration.
They suggested that it was better
for the Palestinians to pursue registration through normal channels.
PA, however, has insisted that the church is in danger, and that registration
must occur now.
“We believe that all of historic Palestine is in danger,”
Israel has not publicly made statements against the bid.
It believes that while the church should be listed as a heritage site, it should
be done jointly with Israel, and that Palestinian statehood should be conferred
through a final-status agreement.
Israel opposes Palestinian moves toward
unilateral statehood and argues that it endangers the prospects of a two-state
But in this instance, because of the secretariat’s
recommendation, Israel’s behind the scenes argument to the 21 countries has been
that it is important to respect the recommendations of UNESCO’s technical
bodies. Diplomatic sources say it is still unclear if the Palestinian bid will
pass or not.
The countries which must vote on the matter include Algeria,
Cambodia, Colombia, Estonia, Ethiopia, France, Germany, India, Iraq, Japan,
Malaysia, Mali, Mexico, Qatar, Russia, Senegal, Serbia, South Africa,
Switzerland, Thailand and the United Arab Emirates.
Although the United
Nations does not recognize Palestine as a member state, the UN Educational,
Scientific and Cultural Organization accepted it as its 195th member in October
and granted all rights due to a state, including the ability to register sites
on the World Heritage List.
Separate from the issue of the church, UNESCO
on Thursday will also address concerns regarding the Old City of Jerusalem,
which is an endangered World Heritage Site.