BETHLEHEM, West Bank (Reuters) - Unlike the Sydney Opera House or the Statue of Liberty, the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, one of the holiest places in Christendom, is not on UNESCO’s list of World Heritage sites.
It lies inside the Israeli-occupied West Bank, where Palestinians, with no state of their own, do not enjoy the full U.N. membership to secure United Nations recognition.
Monday, they announced plans to rectify what the U.N. cultural agency agrees is a glaring anomaly that has placed the church — built 1,700 years ago over the grotto where Jesus is believed to have been born — in international limbo.
“This step is part and parcel of our plan to end the (Israeli) occupation and establish a state,” said Palestinian Authority Minister of Tourism and Antiquities, Khouloud Daibes, presenting a formal submission to the UNESCO heritage committee.
“This is a message of our determination,” she told a news conference marking the first Palestinian bid for a place on UNESCO’s list, which over the past 40 years has denoted more than 900 sites of “outstanding universal value to humanity.”
The bid was discussed at UNESCO headquarters in Paris last week by Prime Minister Salam Fayyad, who since 2009 has driven a campaign to establish all the attributes and institutions of Palestinian statehood by September this year.
The number of U.N. member states that now recognize Palestine has risen to 110 over recent months, more than half the total U.N. membership of 192.
Talks with Israel to end the Middle East conflict and create a Palestinian state by mutual treaty have been suspended for five months. Palestinian leaders say they are considering a statehood initiative at the U.N. General Assembly in September.
An estimated two million pilgrims and tourists are expected to visit the Church of the Nativity this year, bending low to enter by the Door of Humility to the basilica, whose rafters were donated by the 15th century English king, Edward IV.
For Christian pilgrims it is as holy as the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in the Old City of Jerusalem, a few kilometers to the north, which has been a UNESCO World Heritage Site for 30 years.
Jerusalem’s walled Old City was nominated by Jordan in 1981, at a time when Israel was under heavy criticism for enacting a law that declared all of Jerusalem, including the eastern part it captured in a 1967 war, its eternal and indivisible capital.
“The Church of the Nativity is the oldest church we know,” said Lousa Haxthausen, UNESCO’s representative in the West Bank.
Palestine is not a party to UNESCO’s Heritage Convention. But a major Israeli army operation in 2002, when tanks deployed near Manger Square during a Palestinian uprising, drew world attention to the fact that the site deserves protection, Haxtman said.
Dozens of Palestinian gunmen sought by Israel during the uprising barricaded themselves inside the church for 39 days of a violent standoff that was denounced by the pope and Orthodox bishops.
“Despite the legal issues, there has been technical help for (the bid to inscribe) what is unquestionably a world heritage site,” Haxthausen said.
UNESCO’s aim is simply to identify, recognize and protect the natural and cultural heritage of mankind for future generations. It will decide on the Palestinian proposal by the summer of next year.
“There are many challenges but hopefully there will be good news in June 2012,” said Haxthausen. Asked if the bid could be blocked, she said these were “political questions.”
“It is indeed a little late for Bethlehem,” said city Mayor Victor Batarseh. “But this is the least that can be done for one of the most important cities on earth, an irreplaceable source of inspiration.”