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Official: Israel trying to block Nativity Church from UNESCO list

June 13, 2012 3:51 P.M. (Updated: June 15, 2012 10:55 A.M.)
JERUSALEM (Ma'an) -- A representative of the Palestinian Christian community warned on Wednesday that Israeli officials were working to prevent the inclusion of Bethlehem's Nativity Church on UNESCO's list of World Heritage sites.

The ancient church and a nearby pilgrimage route will be considered along with 35 other sites at a meeting of the World Heritage committee in St. Petersburg starting on June 24.

Palestinian Authority officials nominated the site for inclusion on the World Heritage list earlier this year, after Palestine won full membership of UNESCO in October.

Dmitri Dilani, who is also a member of the Fatah revolutionary council, said Israeli officials have argued against Palestine's submission on technical grounds.

An Israeli official told The Jerusalem Post that while Israel believes the church is worthy of inclusion on the list, it opposes the Palestinian Authority's politicization of the process.

Dilani said the church is at risk from Israeli practices, such as the siege during the second intifada as well as isolation as a result of Israel's wall and expansion into Bethlehem territory.

Nada Atrash, research director at Bethlehem's Center for Cultural Heritage Preservation, said inclusion of the church faces two obstacles.

Opponents will argue the state does not have the power to manage the site as it is supervised by church authorities, and technically the church did not go through the 18-month evaluation process, but rather registered as an emergency case.

"The site has been listed amongst endangered world heritage places since 2008 due to its damage, especially to the roof, and the dire state of conservation," Atrash, who has been working on international preservation of the site for over a decade, told Ma'an.

If the committee agrees to include the Church of the Nativity, it will help specialists raise funds and bring UNESCO's expertise to restore the church, she said.

By including the pilgrims route in the application, Atrash hopes heritage status will attract foreign tourists to spend longer in the town, thereby boosting the economy, as visitors currently tend to be bussed in and out quickly, reducing tourism revenues for Palestinians.
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