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PA struggles to fund Bethlehem church renovation

Dec. 13, 2011 9:15 P.M. (Updated: Dec. 15, 2011 3:06 P.M.)
BETHLEHEM (Ma'an) -- The Palestinian Authority is struggling to raise funds for a planned renovation to Bethlehem's iconic Church of the Nativity, a Palestinian official said Monday.

Ziad Bandak, presidential adviser for Christian affairs and head of the Nativity Church restoration committee, says the PA has raised about $1.6 million of the nearly $15 million needed for a major roof renovation.

"The major issue is the issue of funding," Bandak told reporters in Bethlehem. He says the government and local businesses have offered the bulk of the money secured so far, along with a $100,000 grant from Hungary in response to an international appeal for assistance.

"The first who paid $1 million was the Palestinians, from the Palestinian treasury," after President Mahmoud Abbas established a committee in 2009 to carry out work on the church's leaky roof, he says.

The problem with the roof has been exacerbated for centuries, as one authority after another ignored it. Under Ottoman, British, Jordanian and Israeli rule, only cosmetic improvements were made. Now that Palestinians have nominal control of Bethlehem, the PA wants to prove it is up to the challenge.

"The Church of the Nativity is part of our history," Bandak says.

"At the end of it we are going to have the Palestinian Authority's renovation ... which reflects the respect of the Palestinian people for their history."

Asked if he was disappointed with the response so far, Bandak said, "I am maybe a little disappointed, but not pessimistic. I'm sure the majority of the countries want to know the official numbers and figures."

He said support would come through once the committee was able to present a comprehensive plan, in early 2012. "We asked for more study on certain issues" related to the renovation, he said. "We didn't want to ask for money from other countries (in case) there was a miscalculation."

Also, the PA wants "to coordinate this issue with churches, UNESCO, everybody with an international criteria. The renovation itself will have to comply with international standards for cultural heritage protection.

'A very sensitive line'

"The Church of the Nativity is one of the most magnificent and holiest places in the world for the Christians, and also for the Palestinians and Arab countries in general."

There is some precedent for taking it slow. The Nativity Church was built in 330 AD and since that time, there have not been any comprehensive renovations, Palestinian officials say.

"I'm talking about 1,700 years," Bandak points out.

"Earthquakes, wars, changing authorities. So, this is the first time in the history of the church, which is the cradle of Christianity, that a comprehensive renovation is taking place."

The main obstacle to the undertaking is apparent to visitors. Built over the historic birthplace of Christ, the building is strictly divided between the Greek, Latin and Armenian churches.

Finally in 2009, Bandak managed to secure approval from all three groups.

"We have to be very careful not to harm the status quo (agreements)," he says. "We have to coordinate any step with them because they are, at the end of the day, the owners.

"We don't want to harm this understanding, so we have to walk on a very sensitive line and respect their rights and reach the renovation at the end of the day."
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