UNESCO defied its own rules recently when it added the Church of the Nativity to the World Heritage List with a non-existent nation state as its location: Bethlehem, Palestine. Due to an approaching deadline, the Palestinians requested that the Church be added under an emergency procedure claiming that the Church needed urgent repairs and was endangered by the Israeli occupation. Ignoring the recommendations of their own technical advisory body, as well as its secretariat, and despite the fact that their application did not meet the necessary criteria to be listed through the emergency procedure, UNESCO forged ahead with the designation anyway.
Middle Eastern news sources lauded the move, claiming that the birthplace of the Muslim prophet Jesus was just as important to Muslims as Christians and therefore worthy of becoming a Palestinian World Heritage site. Yet not one statement from the PA reflected this more “spiritual” view. On the contrary, this highly politicized move by UNESCO was met with matching politicized rhetoric by the PA.
“This gives hope and confidence to our people in the inevitable victory of our just cause,” PA Prime Minister Salam Fayyad said 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.”
What does the UNESCO move have to do with protecting the Church of the Nativity in the end? Absolutely nothing. This hijacked agency of the UN has simply become another avenue to further delegitimize and attack the State of Israel.
Should the Palestinian government truly care for this historical and meaningful place, they would not have aided and abetted the terrorists that invaded the Church of the Nativity in 2002. A senior Tanzim commander at the time, Abdullah Abu-Hadid, related, “The idea was to enter the church in order to create international pressure on Israel… We knew beforehand that there was two years’ worth of food for 50 monks…” Eating and drinking through that supply in just over a month, the terrorists desecrated Bibles and prayer books and held the monks and nuns hostage throughout the ordeal. There were even reports of the gunmen beating and attacking clergymen. Upon entering the Church, the IDF found that the front doors had been booby trapped with explosives. Kind of puts a leaky roof into perspective.
The PA’s current claim is that this historical site is in danger due to a leaky roof, and subsequently the Israeli occupation. The PA could fix the roof at any time. But this is not about preserving history – it is about rewriting and revising it.
The irony of this whole fiasco is found in the city’s true roots – Bethlehem is a Jewish city. It is the burial place of the matriarch Rachel and the birthplace of the future great king of Israel, David. It is known in the Bible as Bethlehem of Judea and the City of David. A Jewish Jesus was born to Jewish parents in this Jewish city, the Christian New Testament tells us. BeitLechem would also be the site where years later every young Jewish male baby under the age of 2 was slaughtered in case the rumors of a coming king that the Roman King Herod had heard proved true.
Google BeitLechem today and you would never know that it was ever so intimately connected with the history of the Jewish people and their historic homeland.
And so the debacles of yet another UN body continue. An organization that is meant to protect the world’s heritage sites has succumbed to choosing sides in a regional conflict. The Church of the Nativity and its home city are merely being used by the Palestinians to advance their political agenda, and once again, with no regard for the consequences.
Jordanna McMillan is the IIACF’s Director of Outreach and Development.