UNESCO's World Heritage committee on Friday approved a Palestinian Authority bid to place the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem on its list of sites of World Heritage in Danger.
A report in The Associated Press quoted PA spokeswoman Hanan Ashrawi as having said the vote was an affirmation of “Palestinian sovereignty” over the site that marks the place where Christians believe Jesus was born.
Israel angrily denounced the vote. Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Ilana Stein told AP the decision “has turned UNESCO into a theater of the absurd.”
"This is a sad day for the World Heritage Committee," she said. The move was seen by some nations as dangerously mixing politics and culture.
The 21-member committee, meeting in St. Petersburg, Russia, voted 13-6 to include the church and pilgrimage route on its list of sites. There were two abstentions.
The drive to get the church quickly recognized as a World Heritage site is part of the PA’s bid to win international recognition.
AP reported that the United States was among nations opposed to the PA proposal of an emergency candidacy for the Christian site, shortcutting what is usually an 18-month-long process to apply for World Heritage recognition. Neither the United States nor Israel was on the committee.
The U.S. ambassador to UNESCO, David Killion, was quoted as having said the United States is “profoundly disappointed.”
The PA’s application asked for recognition of the church as a site of “outstanding universal value” urgently in need of attention.
The application cited lack of regular restoration of the church due to the political situation since 1967, when Israel liberated Judea and Samaria (Yehuda and Shomron) during the Six Day War. The application also cited difficulties procuring equipment because of lack of free movement imposed by Israeli forces.
The application to place the Church on the World Heritage list shows the PA plans to put forward other sites for prestigious World Heritage recognition, eventually linking various landmarks to the life of Jesus.
“The message to Israel today is that unilateral actions will not work and that Israel cannot continue challenging the world despite its powerful allies,” Ashrawi told AP.
Killion, the U.S. ambassador, said that "this body should not be politicized." His statement noted the candidacy was opposed by a UNESCO experts committee, whose conclusions are almost always heeded.
“The site clearly has tremendous religious and historical significance,” Killion's statement said. “However, the emergency procedure used in this instance is reserved only for extreme cases.”
Stein, the Israeli Foreign Ministry spokeswoman, said that those who voted in favor of the Nativity candidacy “have given themselves up as pawns in the service of the Palestinians at the expense of UNESCO's professionalism and good name.”
Meanwhile, a site nominated by Israel depicting human evolution at Mount Carmel, Nahal Me'arot, was also inscribed on the World Heritage list. However, that nomination, like all others under consideration in St. Petersburg, went through regular channels and not the emergency route.
In a controversial decision, UNESCO accepted the PA as a member last October, after 107 members voted in favor of the motion. Only 14 nations voted against the PA, including the United States, Canada, Germany and Israel.
The move prompted the United States to cut off funding to the organization, due to a longstanding law that prohibits U.S. support for any United Nations-affiliated body that accepts Palestinian Authority membership.
Canada subsequently also cut off some of its funding to UNESCO. The organization was later forced to temporarily suspend new welfare programs in third world countries due to the large hole in its budget created by the loss of U.S. funds, so that much suffering of those whom UNESCO is intended to benefit was caused by the move.
The agency recently claimed that the Matriarch Rachel’s Tomb and the Tomb of the Patriarchs [Me'arat Hamachpela, the Patriarch's Cave] are not exclusively Jewish sites and also belong to Christians and Muslims.
(Arutz Sheva’s North American Desk is keeping you updated until the start of Shabbat in New York. The time posted automatically on all Arutz Sheva articles, however, is Israeli time.)