ST PETERSBURG, Russia (Reuters) - UNESCO granted endangered World Heritage status and funding for repairs to the site seen by Christians as Jesus’s birthplace in the West Bank city of Bethlehem despite objections from the United States and Israel.
Thirteen members of the World Heritage Committee out of twenty one voted in favour of the move at a meeting in St.Petersburg. The decision was met by a standing ovation. Six members voted against and two abstained.
The 4th century Church of Nativity, built over a grotto where Christian tradition says Jesus was born, needs repairs but the Palestinian Authority, which exercises limited self-rule in the Israeli-occupied West Bank, is short of funds.
The Palestinian Authority’s request included part of the Pilgrimage Route, the path which tradition says Joseph and Mary took into the city in their trek from Nazareth 2,000 years ago.
Palestinians had pointed to what they describe as the dangers of Israeli occupation and cited in particular Israel’s 2002 siege of the Church of the Nativity where militants took sanctuary during a Palestinian uprising.
Violence has subsided dramatically in recent years and more than 2 million people now visit the church annually.
Independent experts sent by UNESCO to examine the church recommended turning down the request, saying that while the church roof needed patching up the shrine cannot be considered “to have been severely damaged or to be under imminent threat”.
Friday’s meeting in St. Petersburg was attended by the Palestinian foreign minister, and the Palestinian Authority has viewed its entry into UNESCO as a strategic milestone ahead of broader international recognition it seeks for a future state.
“This gives hope and confidence to our people on the inevitable victory of our just cause,” said 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,” Fayyad said.
Israeli officials have questioned the need for Bethlehem to be registered as an endangered site and see Palestinian moves at UNESCO and other U.N. bodies as an effort to embarrass Israel on the world stage.
“This is an irresponsible decision,” said Gideon Koren, Israel’s Vice President of the International Council on Monuments and Sites. The U.S. Ambassador to UNESCO David Killion said he was “profoundly disappointed by the decision”.
The Palestinian government plans to register about 20 more sites with UNESCO, including the ancient city of Jericho and the archaeological site of Sebastia, and has dismissed Israel’s accusations.
“Our goal is to preserve and safeguard these sites in spite of the threat from Israeli occupation,” Hanan Ashrawi, head of the Palestinian Liberation Organization’s Department of Culture and Information, told Reuters.
Last year, UNESCO granted the Palestinians full membership, a decision seen at the time as a boost to their bid, since largely stalled, to win unilateral statehood recognition from the United Nations in the absence of peace talks with Israel.
Israel and the United States, which subsequently cut off its $80 million annual funding of UNESCO, condemned the decision, saying peace negotiations - which collapsed in 2010 - were the only path to a Palestinian state.
Writing by Gleb Bryanski; Editing by Louise Ireland