UNESCO (The UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization) is not usually known for their controversy. However, the World Heritage Committee’s recent release of the list of new additions of World Heritage Sites has many people raising their eyebrows, calling the decision a ‘dangerous mix of politics and culture’.
The Church of the Nativity, located in Bethlehem, was added as a World Heritage Site on June 29. The Church, which is over 1,500 years old, was built upon what Christians believe to be the birthplace of Jesus. However, it is not the religious significance that has people up in arms; it’s the location. The Church of the Nativity is officially listed as being located in the State of Palestine.
The verdict was met with celebration from Palestinians, who believe that the ruling is an affirmation of Palestinian authority over the area (currently an Israeli controlled section of the West Bank). The Foreign Minister released a statement that the decision is considered a major stepping-stone on the path towards recognized statehood. “This global recognition of the rights of the Palestinian people is a victory for our cause and for justice.”
Both the United States and Israel have expressed their displeasure with the decision. Israel in particular, feels that this will have a negative impact on any peace negotiations. “This decision proves that UNESCO is motivated by political motives, not cultural ones. Rather than progressing towards peace, the Palestinians are resorting to unilateral moves that push it farther away,” said Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. The United States Ambassador to UNESCO released a statement saying, “The site clearly had tremendous religious and historical significance…however, this body [UNESCO] should not be politicized.”
The Church was added to the list on an emergency basis, which is reserved for when a site is in imminent danger. However, independent UNESCO investigators recommended denying the request, saying “The roof certainly needs repair, but the shrine cannot be considered to be severely damaged or under imminent threat.” Israel’s delegate to UNESCO said that they did support adding the Church as a Heritage site, but they felt it should have been done through the regular process and not pushed through as an emergency. “ ‘Emergency Basis Status’ basically means that the UN as a world body is supporting the view that the Church is being threatened by Israeli troops.” Israel points to the fact that in recent years, violence has been dramatically reduced in the area, and the Church sees over two million visitors every year. In spite of the controversy, Palestine is currently in the process of registering 20 more sites with UNESCO.