ST PETERSBURG, Russia (Reuters) - UNESCO granted endangered World Heritage status and funding for repairs to the site revered by Christians as Jesus’s birthplace in the West Bank city of Bethlehem, despite objections from the United States and Israel.
Thirteen of the 21 members of the World Heritage Committee voted in favor of the move at a meeting on Friday in St. Petersburg, Russia. The decision was met by a standing ovation. Six members voted against and two abstained.
The 4th century Church of the Nativity, built over a grotto where Christian tradition says Jesus was born, needs repairs but the Palestinian Authority, which exercises limited self-rule in the Israeli-occupied West Bank, is short of funds.
The Authority’s request covered part of the Pilgrimage Route, the path which tradition says Joseph and Mary took into the city in their trek from Nazareth some 2,000 years ago.
Palestinians had pointed to what they described as the dangers of Israeli occupation and cited in particular Israel’s 2002 siege of the Church of the Nativity where militants took sanctuary during a Palestinian uprising.
Violence has fallen dramatically in recent years and more than 2 million people now visit the church every year.
Independent experts sent by UNESCO to examine the church recommended turning down the request, saying that while the church roof needed patching up the shrine could not be considered “to have been severely damaged or to be under imminent threat”.
Friday’s meeting was attended by the Palestinian foreign minister, and the Palestinian Authority has viewed its entry into UNESCO as a strategic milestone ahead of the broader international recognition it seeks for future statehood.
“This gives hope and confidence to our people in the inevitable victory of our just cause,” said Prime Minister Salam Fayyad in a statement following the decision.
“It increases their determination to continue efforts at deepening readiness for the establishment of an independent State of Palestine, with its capital in East Jerusalem within the 1967 borders,” Fayyad said.
Israel has questioned the need for Bethlehem to be registered as an endangered site and sees Palestinian moves at UNESCO and other U.N. 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 U.S. ambassador to UNESCO, David Killion, said he was “profoundly disappointed by the decision”.
The 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,” Hanan Ashrawi, head of the Palestine Liberation Organization’s Department of Culture and Information, told Reuters.
Last year, UNESCO granted the Palestinians full membership, a decision seen at the time as a boost to their bid, since largely stalled, to win United Nations recognition of its 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 peace negotiations - which collapsed in 2010 - were the only path to a Palestinian state.
Additional reporting by Noah Browning and Ari Rabinovitch, Writing by Gleb Bryanski; Editing by Tim Pearce