by Roy Tov
Friday, June 29th, 2012
Honor given to the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem
Wars seldom limit themselves to violent attacks on military targets. Except for the shortest conflicts, wars often deteriorate into the cultural and social arenas. The Palestinian-Israeli conflict has reached this stage a long time ago; the cultural repercussions of this war include topics that from outside may seem trivial and irrelevant in the context of a generations-long war. One such manifestation is the nomination of UNESCO World Heritage Sites. This UN program names sites of cultural or natural importance, granting them conservation funds and tourism prominence. Since it lists them on national parameters it has become part of several wars. Recently, I wrote about the White City of Tel Aviv, one of the sites UNESCO listed under Israel. Regardless its beauty, the fact that a hundred year-old site was listed while many vastly more important sites in the Holy Land were skipped is odd. This was a testimony of the political pressures exercised on the selection committee; in this case by Israel. Yet, on June 28, 2012, during its 36th Session in Saint Petersburg, Russia, the World Heritage Committee finally recognized the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem as a World Heritage Site. No less important, it catalogued it under Palestine.
Church of the Nativity | World Heritage Site, Bethlehem, Palestine
Following its admission, Palestine filed for the urgent recognition of the church as a Heritage Site. The site obviously fills the criteria needed to be recognized; the Palestinians centered their petition on the urgency issue. They explained that the church needs restoration, including repair of a leaky roof. Until now, restoration was impossible due to the political situation. Since 1967, when Israel occupied the territories, there are difficulties placing equipment in the site due to the lack of free movement imposed by Israel. These facts are undeniable; thus the site was easily recognized.
The size of the Palestinian victory was evident on the immediate reaction of the U.S. ambassador to UNESCO, David Killion, who said the United States is “profoundly disappointed by the World Heritage Committee’s decision.” The choice made by Palestine was clever. The Church of the Nativity is one of the oldest continuously operating churches in the world; moreover, it is directly related to Jesus. The current building was constructed in 565AD by the Emperor Justinian I. The site is widely recognized as Jesus birthplace; in written form the first testimony of that belongs to Christian apologist Justin Martyr (circa 100-165AD) in his “Dialogue with Trypho.” Nowadays, the church is administered jointly by Roman Catholic, Greek Orthodox and Armenian Apostolic authorities, who greet around two million visitors per year; few other World Heritage Sites can present such impressive credentials. Yet, the importance of the site transcends religion.
In 2002, during Operation Defensive Shield, the church was under IDF siege from April 2 to May 10. The Israel Defense Forces occupied Bethlehem and tried to capture wanted Palestinian militants. Shaldag—a special commando unit, see The Cross of Bethlehem for more details on the event—was delivered, but it never arrived at the site. The Palestinians sought by Israel fled into the Church of the Nativity and got refuge. After 39 days an agreement was reached; the militants turned themselves in to Israel and were exiled to Europe and the Gaza Strip. Yet, the IDF behaved violently; the white marks in the image below belong to IDF bullets shot into the Catholic section of the church.
“The message to Israel today is that unilateral actions will not work and that Israel cannot continue challenging the world despite its powerful allies,” Palestinian spokeswoman Hanan Ashrawi said. As of now—less than a day after the groundbreaking decision—Israel keeps quiet, though it is a certainty that it will retaliate violently.
Church of the Nativity | Damage due to the Israeli siege