Jerusalem (AsiaNews) - The inclusion of the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem among "World Heritage sites" by UNESCO, once again focuses attention on the problems and precariousness of the Holy Places, a result of the often unjust interference of Christian communities themselves and the Israeli and Palestinian authorities.
Let us begin with the Church of the Nativity. The Custodian of the Holy Land, Fr. Pizzaballa, expressed cautious optimism on the issue. But Christians - especially Catholics - are less cautious, and openly welcome the UNESCO recognition. In this way, in fact, the Palestinian Authority will have the possibility to launch an international campaign to collect much needed funds for the restoration and repair of the roof above the basilica, which needs an urgent intervention.
The Church of the Nativity - with that of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem and the crypt of the tomb of Mary at the foot of the Mount of Olives - are subject to an international legal norm known as the "status quo". It does not deed the Catholic Church or other Christian communities the title of ownership of the Basilica. Rather, it comprises a complex distribution of rights of possession, use, management, the observance of which is guaranteed by the State. They also have a duty to intervene to enforce the status quo if there is concern over violations; to ensure the soundness and practicability of the buildings where there is no unanimity among the mainline churches present there. These churches are: the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate of Jerusalem, the Franciscan Custody of the Holy Land (which, by papal mandate, represents the Catholic Church), the Armenian Orthodox Patriarchate of Jerusalem.
Up to now, in fact the Greek-orthodox have thwarted any joint intervention to repair the roof of the Basilica, of which there is an urgent need. If there were a uniform agreement, the three communities would have to fund repairs on the building themselves (as was the case in the recent past in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem). But the lack of agreement and the dangerous state of the roof has forced the Palestinian National Authority to intervene and provide for its restoration.
From one point of view, therefore, the Palestine move calling on UNESCO to declare the Basilica of the Nativity as a "world heritage site" will save the holy place and make it easier to find the necessary funding for repairs, which promise to be very expensive. Moreover, the Christian communities who officiate at the Nativity have received the written guarantee that the NPC has no intention of intervening in the use of the Basilica and indeed, will ensure the smooth running of all religious functions according to the "status quo", which is also guaranteed in Article 4 of the 'Basic Agreement' between the Holy See and the PLO (2000).
Among Catholics, there are those who expect something more from UNESCO: the inclusion of the Church of the Nativity in Heritage List should also ensure the architectural integrity of the sanctuary. This is to prevent any future alteration or destruction of the Church of the Nativity similar to what happened in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. This is a beautiful jewel dating to the period of the Crusades, originally with a circular form. But a few decades ago, the Greek-orthodox built the so-called Katholicon, two walls enclosing the shrine which upset the architectural space of the building. Now, on entering the church you are no longer greeted by the so-called Stone of the Anointing in front of the columns of rotunda and Aedicule which crown the Holy Sepulchre itself, but a simple, bland wall, which destroys the architectural logic of the most important church in Christendom .
Thus, it is vital to guarantee the present and future architectural integrity of all the holy sites not owned by the individual churches.
The vast majority of holy places (in fact, all the others, which are not governed by the "status quo") are owned by the individual churches. As private property, they should not be taken over by any state in any way to make any capital, even if they themselves are of global importance. For some time, for example, the Israeli state are pushing for some holy places such as Mount Tabor, Capernaum, and other Catholic shrines in Galilee to be put under the "protection" of the state. The Catholic Church opposes this in principle: they are the private property of ecclesiastical bodies and can not in any way be transferred to others. Moreover, it is not clear what value this "protection" would have: to protect them from whom? If the state wants to protect them, all they need to do is respect them and maybe even some positive actions, without trying to become too involved, risking undue interference.
From this point of view, the decision of UNESCO to include the Church of the Nativity in the World Heritage list, while positive, is likely to offer support and a pretext for attempts to nationalize other shrines in Israel and Palestine.
This is why, the Catholic Church has been insisting that, for example, the definition of Mount Tabor as a "national park" and other major shrines in Galilee be removed, because they are Catholic shrines and private property.
Making these sanctuaries "national parks" denies the fact there are church property and undermine their sacred character.