Church leaders in Israel are opposed to any politicization of the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem and other places of worship, and expressed hope that the traditional guardians of the site would preserve their jurisdiction of it.

Following a UNESCO decision last week to list the basilica as a World Heritage Site under “Palestine,” Father Pierbattista Pizzaballa, the appointed custodian of the Holy Land – responsible for oversight and upkeep of Christian holy sites in the Middle East – said that the Church of the Nativity must remain first and foremost a place of worship.

“The custodian of the Holy Land reiterates the position of the churches: This holy place cannot, and should not, be instrumentalized for any use that is alien to its character,” Pizzaballa said in a statement to the press.

“Our hope in the churches...is that the holy sites will be considered first and foremost as holy places of worship, and that cultural and political issues, whether local or international, are excluded from their management, daily life and dynamics,” Pizzaballa added, saying that the must remain “places of peace and serenity for all the pilgrims and should not become places of difficult coexistence.”

At the end of April, Pizzaballa, along with the Greek Orthodox Patriarch of Jerusalem Theophilus III, and Patriarch of the Armenian Church Archbishop Torkom Manoogian sent a letter to Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas expressing their opposition to the Church of the Nativity’s candidacy for World Heritage status.

“In our opinion, we do not think it opportune to deal with this request that the basilica and its entire complex be included in the list of World Heritage sites,” the three clerics wrote, “due to different considerations, the minor of which his that the operating conditions required by the statues of UNESCO, necessary to include it, do not exist.”

The Franciscan order of the Catholic church which Pizzaballa heads, along with the Armenian and Greek Orthodox Patriarchates of Jerusalem, jointly administer the site.

In his comments on UNESCO’s decision, Pizzaballa said that he was under the impression, before the decision was announced, that the vote taken in St. Petersburg on Friday pertained only to the Old City of Bethlehem and not to the basilica itself.

In their April letter, the church leaders noted that they did not oppose the listing of the Old City of Bethlehem as a UNESCO site.

Archbishop Aris Shirvanian of the Armenian Patriarchate of Jerusalem told The Jerusalem Post on Monday that the unanimous position of the three churches is that they must keep their jurisdiction of the basilica intact, and that neither UNESCO nor other organizations or churches should be given any administrative rights.

He would not comment on concerns about the politicization of the site, but did say that “since the church is in Bethlehem there are no objections to it being listed in Palestine.”

However, Bishop William Shomali of the Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem said that the work done by the Palestinian Authority to have the Church of the Nativity listed as a UNESCO World Heritage site was a significant achievement, and added that the PA has provided written guarantees that it will not intervene in the internal affairs of the site, in particular the “status quo” agreement which defines the relations amongst the various denominations administering the Church.

In Pizzaballa’s comments, he also noted that Abbas had guaranteed the full autonomy of the three churches in the management of the sites.

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