PA seeks support for UNESCO site bid

Palestinians still scrambling to find necessary support for vote to register Church of the Nativity under the name Palestine.

June 28, 2012 04:42
3 minute read.
A worshiper in Church of the Nativity

A worshiper in Church of the Nativity 370 (R). (photo credit: REUTERS)


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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 historical significance.

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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 Palestine.

“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.

Palestinians also 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.

The 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,” said Awadallah.

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 solution.

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.

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