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Palestinians celebrate UNESCO win

June 29, 2012 8:59 P.M. (Updated: June 30, 2012 10:20 P.M.)
BETHLEHEM (Ma'an) -- Palestinian officials applauded the UN cultural agency Friday after UNESCO voted to accept a revered Christian holy place onto its list of world heritage sites.

At a news conference outside the Church of the Nativity, the traditional birthplace of Jesus, officials thanked UNESCO for recognizing Palestine's heritage as fireworks lit up the sky.

"We are all very happy," said Issam Juha, the director for restoration at the Centre for Cultural Heritage Preservation and one of the authors of the Palestinian application to UNESCO.

"We almost lost hope," he said, referring to the particularly close vote in St Petersburg. "But today was a great day ... As Palestinians we deserve our heritage like any other people in the world."

The official rejected accusations by Israel and the United States that the submission of the Church of the Nativity and nearby Pilgrimage Route was motivated by political interests.

"This isn't political. It was a technical decision based on merit," he told Ma'an, speaking outside the church. "This place is holy to all humanity, especially the two billion Christians around the world."

Israel has questioned the need for Bethlehem to be registered as an endangered site and sees Palestinian moves at UNESCO and other UN bodies as efforts to embarrass Israel on the world stage.

"This is proof that UNESCO is motivated by political and not cultural considerations," Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's office said in a statement following the decision. "Instead of taking steps to promote peace, the Palestinians are acting unilaterally, which makes peace more distant."

The US ambassador to UNESCO, David Killion, said he was "profoundly disappointed by the decision".

George Saade, the deputy mayor of Bethlehem, called the vote a landmark achievement and congratulated President Mahmoud Abbas and his prime minister, Salam Fayyad, on the successful outcome.

Abbas' Palestinian government plans to register about 20 more sites with UNESCO, including the ancient city of Jericho and the archaeological site of Sebastia, and has dismissed Israel's accusations.

"Our goal is to preserve and safeguard these sites in spite of the threat from Israeli occupation," said Hanan Ashrawi, head of the PLO's Department of Culture and Information.

Last year, UNESCO granted Palestine full membership, a decision seen at the time as a boost to their bid, since largely stalled, to win UN recognition of statehood in the absence of peace talks with Israel.

Israel and the United States, which later cut off its $80 million annual funding of UNESCO, condemned the decision, saying negotiations -- which collapsed in 2010 -- were the only path to statehood.

Reuters contributed to this report.

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