Boston Globe, MA
Nov 27 2011

After centuries, Bethlehem church to get new roof

By Matti Friedman
Associated Press / November 27, 2011

BETHLEHEM, West Bank - Preparations for a long-needed renovation of the
1,500-year-old Church of the Nativity are moving ahead in Bethlehem,
the town of Jesus' birth, in the face of political and religious
conflicts that have kept one of Christendom's holiest sites in a state
of decay for centuries.

The first and most urgent part of the renovation, initiated by the
Palestinian government in the West Bank, is meant to replace the
building's roof. Ancient wooden beams pose a danger to visitors,
officials say, and leaks have already ruined many of the church's
priceless mosaics and paintings.

If the repairs go ahead as planned next year, it will be the first
time the crumbling basilica has seen major renovation work in more
than a century and a half.

Altering a building like the Church of the Nativity, built 1,500 years
ago on the site of a church 200 years older than that, is never a
simple affair. The building is shared by three Christian sects --
Catholics, Greek Orthodox and Armenians -- who have traditionally
viewed each other with suspicion and are wary of upsetting the brittle
status quo that governs the site.

To repair a part of the church is to own it, according to accepted
practice, meaning that letting other sects undertake renovations or
pay for them could allow one to gain ground at another's expense.

The resulting paralysis and disrepair has been a recurring theme at the church.

"In the roof the timbers which were constructed in ancient times are
rotting, and this structure is falling daily into ruin," wrote one
visitor. That was in 1461.

Some measure of the complications involved in a renovation of this
type can be found in the Nativity's similarly ancient and fractious
sister church, the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem. When a 1927 earthquake
badly damaged that building, it took the rival sects more than three
decades to agree to major repairs and another three to complete them.

Today, the increasingly dire state of the Nativity's roof and the
intervention of an external player in the form of the Palestinian
Authority -- which has circumvented the old rivalries and allowed all
to save face -- has led the three churches to agree to a renovation to
be arranged and funded by the Palestinian government and international

The Palestinian Authority, the Western-backed government that wields
limited control in the West Bank under Israel's overall control, sees
the church as its premier tourist attraction, with 2 million foreign
visitors last year.

The PA and its president, Mahmoud Abbas, are eager to win recognition
for the basilica from UNESCO as a world heritage site, but an earlier
application was not accepted because UNESCO did not consider the
Palestinian government a state. That changed last month, when, in a
controversial decision that triggered a funding cutoff by the United
States, the U.N.'s cultural arm decided to grant recognition.

The Palestinians are now hoping their application will be approved.
The renovation is motivated, in part, by a desire on their part to
prove they are responsible stewards of sites of global importance.

"Our president has issued a decree to restore the roof and to prepare
for the restoration of the church on behalf of the three churches and
in coordination with the three churches, which obviously cannot do it
on their own," said Khouloud Daibes, the Palestinian tourism minister.

A high-tech survey by experts from Canada, Italy and elsewhere ended
earlier this year. Palestinian officials hope the three churches will
sign off on the plans and that the renovation itself will begin in
2012. It is expected to cost between $10 and $15 million.

The roof is in such poor condition that there is a "risk of collapsing
beams within the wooden structure which could hurt people inside the
church," said Issam Juha of the Centre for Cultural Heritage
Preservation, one of the official Palestinian bodies in charge of the
UNESCO application.

"We recognize that this is a necessity that goes beyond our different
claims, and that this has to be done," said Father Athanasius, the
Roman Catholic clergyman in charge of relations with other sects at
shared sites in the Holy Land.

Archbishop Aris Shirvanian of the Armenian Patriarchate of Jerusalem
said his church supported the plan, along with the other churches. A
Greek Orthodox representative did not respond to requests for comment.

To someone standing on the worn marble floors of the basilica amid
cassocked monks and busloads of tourists and looking upward, the roof
appears as an aging latticework of wooden beams, some of them visibly

The roof was first built, along with the rest of the basilica, by the
Byzantine emperor Justinian in the 6th century A.D. following the
destruction of the original church built on the site of the grotto
where Jesus was believed to have been born. Some of Justinian's
massive wooden beams are still in use.

In 1480, with Bethlehem under Muslim rule and the roof disintegrating,
permission was granted to replace it. Philip, Duke of Burgundy, sent
craftsmen, wood and iron. King Edward IV of England sent lead, and the
Doge of Venice provided ships. Major work was carried out again two
centuries later.

When the British controlled the Holy Land between 1917 and 1948, they
recognized the urgency of replacing the roof but simply could not
navigate the explosive rivalries between the sects in the church,
traditionally backed by powers like France and Russia.

In the mid-1800s the tensions had become so fierce that Russian Czar
Nicholas I actually deployed troops along the Danube to threaten a
Turkish sultan who had been favoring the Catholics over the Orthodox.

The British managed only small repairs. The same went for the
Jordanians, who ruled Bethlehem from 1948 to 1967, and for the
Israelis, who captured the West Bank from the Jordanians and turned
the city over to the Palestinian Authority in the 1990s.

A UNESCO report in 1997 found that because of water leaking from the
roof, most of the mosaics and paintings, some dating from Byzantine
times, had been "damaged beyond repair."

In the similar case of the renovation of the Holy Sepulcher in
Jerusalem, the sects put aside their differences only when they
realized that their holy building was in danger of collapse, said
Raymond Cohen of Hebrew University in Jerusalem, an international
relations professor who wrote a book about that renovation project.
There was also a measure of judicious outside intervention by a
Jordanian official at the right time, he said.

Something similar appears to have happened here.

"The paradox is that everyone needs to repair it, but they can't
agree," Cohen said. "When the place is about to fall down, it focusses
the mind."