Agence France Presse
June 29, 2012 Friday 3:19 PM GMT

UNESCO urgently lists Bethlehem church as world heritage

SAINT PETERSBURG, June 29 2012


The UN cultural body UNESCO overrode Israeli objections Friday to
urgently grant world heritage status to a church in the Palestinian
city of Bethlehem venerated as the birthplace of Jesus.

UNESCO's 13-6 secret vote to add the Church of the Nativity and its
pilgrimage route to the prestigious list was received with a round of
rousing applause and a celebratory fist pump by the beaming head of
the Palestinian delegation, and deep disappointment from Israeli ally
Washington.

"These sites are threatened with total destruction through the Israeli
occupation, through the building of the separation wall, because of
all the Israeli sanctions and the measures that have been taken to
stifle the Palestinian identity," the Palestinian delegate said after
the vote.

He called the vote a powerful sign that the international community
had rallied to the Palestinian cause and was ready to accept it as an
independent state with borders that included territories captured by
Israel in the 1967 Six Day War.

"It is testimony to the fact that the world as a whole is intent on
protecting Palestine... and making sure that the Palestinian state is
created within the 1967 border the capital of which would be east
Jerusalem.

The US delegation to UNESCO said it was "profoundly disappointed"
while stressing that "this body should not be politicised."

The Israeli delegate for his part said the Jewish state supported
awarding world heritage status to the ancient church under a
completely different procedure that carried no implications for the
Middle East peace process.

"The decision taken now was totally political and does great damage in
our opinion to the (UN) convention and its image," the delegate said.

The bid -- the first since the Palestinians won controversial
membership of UNESCO in October 2011 -- was submitted "on an emergency
basis" because the Palestinians say urgent restoration work is needed.

Their membership has cost the body tens of millions of dollars in lost
funding from the United States.

Israel said the "emergency basis" status essentially meant that the
United Nations as a world body was backing the Palestinian view that
the church was threatened by the Jewish state's troops.

It had proposed co-sponsoring the church's application at a future
date -- an idea whose prospects seem remote amid continuing stalemate
in the gruelling Middle East peace process.

The three Churches involved -- the Catholic as well as Greek Orthodox
and Armenian -- for their part have only given lukewarm approval to
the idea because of the dangers the move potentially poses to their
own rights to the shrine.

"It is impossible to inherently pass the sovereignty over the church
by fiat from the Churches to a non-existent state," the Israeli
delegate said after the vote.

"It is moreover irresponsible for the committee to cancel in a sleight
of hand the status quo that organised the management of the Church of
the Nativity for 500 years."

The Palestinian bid had faced other hurdles that included a negative
report from the body that evaluates sites for UNESCO and reported
disagreement among Palestinian leaders themselves.

The historic vote was preceded by an extended afternoon debate and
then more than an hour of heated discussion over procedures.

The motion had required a two-thirds majority because it was
overriding a draft recommendation by UNESCO not to support the
Bethlehem candidacy because of the evaluation committee's report.

The Palestinian delegation promised more battles at UNESCO in the years to come.

"Palestine is rich in world heritage and we are therefore going to
have other nominations," the delegate chief said.

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