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.
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.
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.
needs to remember that the Church of the Nativity, which is sacred to
Christianity, has been desecrated in the past by Palestinian
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
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.
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
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
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
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
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
Reuters contributed to this report.