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Holy Land heritage controversy

June 29, 2012

Palestinians celebrated UNESCO’s granting of World Heritage status to Bethlehem 's Nativity Church as "historic day for justice." The United States and Israel were among nations opposed to the granting of such status.

Bethlehem's Church of Nativity is traditionally believed by Christians to be the birthplace of Jesus
Image: dapd

Palestinians had pushed the West Bank’s Church of the Nativity, regarded as the birthplace of Jesus Christ, as an emergency candidate at the meeting of the 21-nation World Heritage committee in St. Petersburg, Russia. The status was decided on a 13-6 secret-ballot vote with two countries abstaining. Rousing applause greeted the decision.

"This global recognition of the rights of the Palestinian people is a victory for our cause and for justice," a spokesman for Palestinian Authority President Mahmud Abbas said. "This decision shows that it's natural that the world is with us and recognizes the rights of the Palestinian people and the state of Palestine," he added.

The Israeli delegate to the meeting said his government supported awarding the status to the ancient church under a different procedure that would carry no implications for the Middle East peace process. Officials for Israel said the "emergency basis" status essentially meant that the UN backed the Palestinian view that the church was threatened by its troops.

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

"The United States is profoundly disappointed by the decision," read a statement by Washington's mission to the UNESCO headquarters in Paris. "The site is sacred to all Christians; it clearly has tremendous religious and historical significance. However, the emergency procedure used in this instance is reserved only for extreme cases, specifically when a site is under imminent threat of destruction. In the 40 years of the World Heritage Convention's existence, the emergency procedure has been used only four times and only in the most extreme cases, and always consistent with the recommendation of the advisory bodies."

Aside from US and Israeli opposition, the Palestinian bid also faced hurdles including a negative report from the body that evaluates such sites for UNESCO.

mkg/mz (AP, AFP, dpa)