JERUSALEM (CNS) — The designation of Bethlehem’s Church of the Nativity as a UNESCO World Heritage site complicates relations between the three churches that oversee the holy site as well as relations between the Israeli and Palestinian communities, said a church official.
Archbishop Antonio Franco, papal nuncio to Israel and the Palestinian territories, said the Catholic Church believes the church which marks the site of Christ’s birth is part of the church’s “patrimony as holy places, not because they are on a UNESCO list.”
He explained to Catholic News Service that the “sensitivity of the issue and all its repercussions” make it difficult to properly convey the Catholic Church’s position on the designation.
“Unfortunately (the decision) can’t be put in the abstract,” he said.
Archbishop Franco said because of the “concrete situations” between Israel and the Palestinian territories, the “political implications” of such a decision cannot be overlooked.
The designation had been opposed by the custos of the Holy Land, Franciscan Father Pierbattista Pizzaballa. He told the Italian bishops’ news agency SIR the Franciscans last fall that he and other Christian leaders believed the initiative would make “it harder for us to run (the church), because, under UNESCO rules, the board in charge of running a place for the U.N. agency is the government, not the owner of a site.”
The Franciscans are the Catholic partner in maintaining the Status Quo, a 19th-century agreement that regulates jurisdiction of and access to key Christian sites — including the Church of the Nativity — in the Holy Land for Catholic, Orthodox and other Christian communities.
Archbishop Franco told CNS he wanted to understand what role UNESCO would take in overseeing the revered site.
“Now there is another entity which will take control in a sense,” he said. “This could complicate things although (UNESCO) has given their full assurance that they will not interfere. We will see.”
The archbishop said the three churches sent a letter to UNESCO stating their position prior to the June 27 vote.
“We want (the Church of the Nativity) to be a patrimony of humanity because of its religious identity, especially as a holy place as the birth of Jesus, not because it is a monument under the patronage of UNESCO,” the nuncio said. “We want to keep the holy places open to everyone at every time in every place without any limitations.”
Meanwhile, Palestinians celebrated the UNESCO decision while Israel denounced it as biased.
“The Palestinian people are celebrating this decision as a moment of national pride and affirmation of their rich and unique cultural heritage,” said Hanan Ashrawi, who heads the Palestine Liberation Organization’s Department of Culture and Information in a June 30 statement.
Ashrawi said the decision was “a welcome recognition by the international community of our historical and cultural rights in this land and our commitment to the protection and preservation of such significant Palestinian cultural and religious sites in spite of the Israeli occupation and all its prejudicial measures.”
The designation was met with disappointment by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and the United States.
Israel has said it believes the church is worthy of being nominated as a World Heritage site, but objected to the politicization of the nomination. In a June 30 statement Netanyahu noted that UNESCO has been proven to be “motivated by political, not cultural, considerations.”
“Instead of the Palestinians carrying out steps that will advance peace, they take unilateral steps that only push peace further away,” the statement said. “The world needs to remember that the Church of the Nativity, which is sacred to Christianity, has been desecrated in the past by Palestinian terrorists.”