Jerusalem (AsiaNews) -
Satisfaction and pride among Palestinians, Israeli criticism and the quiet
appreciation from the Custodian of the Holy Land are the sentiments that
dominate today in Bethlehem after Unesco announced it was including The Church
of the Nativity and the pilgrimage route between Jerusalem and Bethlehem on its
list of World Heritage Sites. This
is the first time a a Palestinian site has been included on the list.
Meeting yesterday in St. Petersburg (Russia), the Heritage Committee of UNESCO (21 members) voted with 13 yes, 6 no and 2 abstentions to the proposal of the Palestinian National Authority (PNA), presented in an "emergency procedure ",'' because of the decay and degradation'' of the site and the "separation barrier", consequences of the occupation by Israeli forces.
Hanan Ashrawi, a Christian Orthodox, on behalf of the Executive Committee of the PLO (Palestine Liberation Organization) said that'' the Palestinian people gladly welcomes this decision as a moment of national pride and an acknowledgment of the uniqueness and the richness of their own identity and their heritage.''
Nabil Abu Rdeina, spokesman for Palestinian President Abu Mazen, said that "this is a historic day for justice" that the world - he added - has again expressed its opposition to the occupation and was on the side of justice and of international legitimacy, recognizing the Palestinian right to a State.
Issam Juha, director of the Palestinian Center for the restoration of national heritage, the author of the proposal, is overjoyed and has stoutly denied Israel's allegations of an attempt to politicize the issue. "This is not political - he says. It is a technical decision based on value. This place is sacred to all mankind and especially for two billion Christians worldwide."
Nimrod Barkan, Israel's delegate to UNESCO, said that his country was not opposed to enclosing the Church of the Nativity on the list of World Heritage sites, but has criticized the urgency of the procedure, seen as a way to embarrass Israel and mine the peace process.
The Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has branded all the UNESCO as being "not motivated by political and not cultural reasons." The U.S. delegate, David Killion, said he was "deeply disappointed by the decision."
Israel and the United States criticism is directed more at UNESCO than the question about the Church of the Nativity. Last year the UN body was the first to recognize PNA as a member thus opening the way for international recognition of a Palestinian State. Last year Abu Mazen had presented the candidacy of Palestine as a UN member state, but without success.
In a kind of retaliation against the "politicization" of Unesco, the United States withdrew its annual contribution of 80 million dollars, representing a fifth of the UN budget.
Given the success of the initiative, the NPC has compiled a list of 20 sites that Palestinians would like to include in the list of World Heritage, distributed in the West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem. These would include the city of Jericho and its archaeological sites.
Fr. Pizzaballa, Franciscan Custos of the Holy Land expresses quiet acceptance of the UNESCO decision, which he calls "great news". At first, when the proposal had been raised, all the churches who officiate in the church (Greek-orthodox, Catholics and Armenians) had expressed opposition over fears that the action of the PNA could distort the use of the holy place.
Speaking at the Franciscan Media Center, Fr. Pizzaballa, however, ruled that "President Abu Mazen, the president of the Palestinian Autonomy, has said very clearly, even in writing, in a formal letter to our Churches (Greek Orthodox Patriarchate, Armenians and Custody) that guarantees the full autonomy of Churches in management of holy sites and respect the status quo and normal functions. This insurance is very important. "
"Our hope as churches - he added, reiterating the position always taken in the issue - is that ... the holy places are considered first of all holy places and religious and that cultural, political, local or international issues, are excluded from the management, life, and dynamics of the holy places. They must remain a place of peace and serenity for all pilgrims and not become a place of difficult coexistence. This is our hope for Bethlehem and all the holy places. "
The Basilica of the Nativity was built in the fourth century under Emperor Constantine, and encloses the cave and the manger where Jesus was born and laid. In the sixth century, it was destroyed in a fire and rebuilt under Justinian. According to tradition, in 614 the church was saved from Persians destruction, thanks to the depiction in the upper part of the structure of the three Magi in national costume. In 2002 it suffered a siege by Israeli troops who wanted to flush out some Palestinian militants who had taken shelter there. It has long been in need of urgent restoration of the walls and columns, blackened by the fires and the roof, which is very unstable is in need of repair. In 2011 the church was visited by at least two million pilgrims. (JL)