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UNESCO status for Bethlehem

06 July 2012


UN recognition: the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem

UN recognition: the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem

PALESTINIANS are among those celebrating the decision by the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) to add the Church of the Holy Nativity in Bethlehem to its World Heritage List, thus qualifying it for funding and repairs.

Of the 21 members of the World Heritage Committee, who met last Friday in St Petersburg, 13 voted in favour and six against, and two abstained.

A spokesman for the Palestinian Authority said that it represented "both a cultural and a political victory. This amounts to recognition that our cultural heritage has to be protected from Israeli measures, policies, and illegal settlement." The decision "shows that the world is with us and recognises the rights of the Palestinian people".

The Palestinian Foreign Minister, Dr Riad Malki, said that the church's recognition was the start of a "long-term project". The Authority will seek to have additional religious West Bank sites recognised by UNESCO as endangered World Heritage sites.

The UNESCO citation refers to the "Church of the Nativity and the Pilgrimage Route, Bethlehem (Palestine)". The reference to Bethlehem's being located in Palestine is being interpreted by Palestinians as a further important step towards the de facto international recognition of their right to statehood.

Equally, however, this reference has drawn an angry response from Israel and the United States. Both countries had condemned the decision last year by UNESCO to accept Palestine as a full member: the Obama administration withdrew US financial support for the the organisation.

The Israeli Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, said in a statement that the UNESCO decision on Bethlehem proved that the organisation was "motivated by political motives, not cultural ones. Rather than progressing towards peace, the Palestinians are resorting to unilateral moves that push it farther away."

The US, which had argued strongly against Bethlehem's being accorded World Heritage status as part of a Palestinian state, condemned the outcome of the vote. The US Ambassador to UNESCO, David Killion, said that he was "profoundly disappointed".

Over recent years, Bethlehem has been increasingly surrounded by expanding Jewish settlements on the West Bank, and is closed on three sides by barriers built by Israel. When Palestine was received into UNESCO last year, Mr Netanyahu ordered a speeding- up of Israeli construction in Arab East Jerusalem and the West Bank.


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