The Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem on Friday became the first World Heritage Site of the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) to be listed under the name “Palestine.”

Its approval, by a secret 13- to-6 vote, with two abstentions, marked the second victory at UNESCO in less than a year for the Palestinian Authority’s pursuit of unilateral statehood at the United Nations and its bodies.

Resounding applause greeted the announcement of the vote at the 36th meeting of the World Heritage Committee, being held in St. Petersburg, Russia.

“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.”

A statement issued by the Prime Minister’s Office blasted the decision, accusing UNESCO of acting out of political rather than cultural considerations.

“Instead of the Palestinians carrying out steps that will advance peace, they take unilateral steps that only push peace further away,” the statement said.

“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.”

UNESCO agreed to accept Palestine as its 195th member state last October, even though it is not a member state of the UN. The PA now has state rights in all UNESCO-related bodies, such as the World Heritage Center.

For technical reasons relating to the signing of the convention, the PA had to meet a cut-off date to submit the church for registration as a World Heritage Site. Therefore, it requested that the church be considered under an emergency procedure, saying it needed urgent repairs and additionally was in danger from Israel’s “occupation” of the area.

The World Heritage Committee’s technical advisory body, as well its secretariat, both advised it prior to the Friday meeting that the application did not meet the necessary criteria to be listed through the emergency procedure.

But 13 of the 21 member states on the committee disregarded that advice.

Foreign Ministry spokesman Yigal Palmor said the countries that approved the measure were Algeria, France, India, Iraq, Malaysia, Mali, Mexico, Qatar, Russia, Senegal, Serbia, South Africa and the United Arab Emirates.

According to Palmor, Ethiopia, Japan, Switzerland, Estonia, Colombia and Germany voted against the measure, and Cambodia and Thailand abstained.

Palmor said that if the Palestinians were really interested in preserving the church, they would have gone through the normal procedure.

The Palestinians, he said, “seem to enslave every possible cause – historical, cultural or economic – to a senseless bashing of Israel.”

Israel’s ambassador to UNESCO, Nimrod Barkan, said in St. Petersburg that it was a mistake for the committee to ignore the technical advice of its own advisers.

There was no link, he said, between the water damage to the church roof and its placement on the list through an emergency procedure. He also noted that nothing prevented the PA from fixing the roof.

Israel has in the past said it believes the church, known as the birthplace of Jesus, is worthy of inscription as a World Heritage Site, but that it opposes the Palestinian use of the mechanism to advance a political agenda of unilateral statehood.

PA Foreign Minister Riad Malki, who was in St. Petersburg for the vote, said, however, that UNESCO had an important role to play in helping to protect Palestinian land, which is the “cradle of civilization.”

Malki said the church, as well as other West Bank sites, were threatened by Israel’s “occupation,” its security barrier and settlers. He thanked the committee for helping the Palestinians obtain their cultural right to self-determination.

The US ambassador to UNESCO, David Killion, said he was “profoundly disappointed by the decision.” Oddly, the committee’s next move was to approve a bid by Israel to include a series of caves in the Mount Carmel region to the World Heritage List for their fossilization of human evolution.

Reuters contributed to this report.

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