JERUSALEM — Palestinians are hopeful that UNESCO will recognize the city of Bethlehem as the first Palestinian World Heritage Site, but Franciscans in charge of the city’s holy places say they do not want them included in the classification.
“We don’t want the (UNESCO) recognition for the holy places,” said a Franciscan source who asked not to be named. “We fear it could lead to nationalization of the shrines. The shrines are not tourist places, but are places of prayer and worship.”
The custos of the Holy Land, Franciscan Father Pierbattista Pizzaballa, told the Italian bishops’ news agency, SIR, that the Greek Orthodox and Armenian patriarchates had joined him in asking the Palestinian Authority to exclude the Church of the Nativity in the application for the UNESCO World Heritage Site classification.
He said the church could be included later “when the situation, including the political situation, will be quieter.”
“We don’t have any problem with proclaiming the city of Bethlehem as a UNESCO heritage site. We are not too enthusiastic about the Nativity. It is an initiative that makes it harder for us to run (the church), because, under UNESCO rules, the board in charge of running a place for the U.N. agency is the government, not the owner of a site,” Father Pizzaballa was quoted as saying. He added that he feared “the holy places might be used for political reasons.”
“Right now, we do not want to become, on one hand, the keepers of places run by governments and, on the other hand, to be exploited for issues in which the holy places must not be involved,” he said.
The Franciscans are the Catholic partner in maintaining the Status Quo, a 19th-century agreement that regulates jurisdiction of and access to key Christian sites in the Holy Land for Catholic, Orthodox and other Christian communities.
The Franciscan source said adding UNESCO to an already complex situation would only make it more complicated.
If the World Heritage Site status is accepted, “you have to run it by their (UNESCO’s) rules,” something the Franciscan Custody — and probably other churches — would object to, said the source.
However, Palestinian Minister of Tourism Khouloud Daibes Abu Dayyeh said the nomination file asking for recognition of the city of Bethlehem as a World Heritage Site was signed and submitted to UNESCO last year, and it included the Church of the Nativity.
“We will be working in coordination with the churches when it comes to the technical details of the implication of Bethlehem being included as a World Heritage Site,” said Daibes Abu Dayyeh, who is Christian.
She said now that the Palestinians have membership in UNESCO, their application can be considered at the June UNESCO meeting in St. Petersburg, Russia. She said she is confident that the city will become the first Palestinian site to be recognized as a World Heritage site.
“We’ve been waiting for this for a long time. We are very excited and very proud. We are ready for this moment,” she said. “I think we have prepared (an excellent) nomination file with the Church of the Nativity and the city of Bethlehem. It fulfills the requirements … it is a unique site.”
She noted that the Old City of Jerusalem and its walls had been accepted as a World Heritage site in 2007 as proposed by the Jordanians — who occupied East Jerusalem until the 1967 war but remain as the guardian of Muslim holy sites in the city.
Daibes Abu Dayyeh said the recognition by UNESCO was valuable “in order to raise awareness of the importance of cultural heritage as a shaper of cultural identity.”
She said the Palestinians had been training architects, urban planners and others for the past decade in preparation for the day when they would join UNESCO. She also said the Palestinian Authority has worked closely with UNESCO in terms of educational, cultural and scientific projects, including in Gaza. With full membership, Palestinians would have access to more programming and more funding, she said.
Daibes Abu Dayyeh said the Palestinians had 20 other sites they hoped to be named World Heritage Sites, including Jericho as the oldest city in the world; the city of Hebron, which is of religious significance for Muslims, Jews and Christians; the Qumran Caves in the Judean Desert; and a Religious Roots Holy Land Nativity Trail.
However, as with most things in the Holy Land, there are potential political complications.
Hebron is the largest West Bank city, with about 165,000 Palestinians, but it is also home to more than 500 Jewish settlers, and a large majority of the city is under direct Israeli control. The Qumran Caves — where the famous Dead Sea Scrolls were discovered — are located in a disputed area now under Israeli control.
Israeli archaeologist Yonathan Mizrahi said heritage is a very powerful tool in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
“In the end, the heritage sites have thousands of years of heritage in all different layers,” said Mizrahi, who works with an organization that focuses on the role of archaeology in Israeli society and in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. “The thing that is important to remember is that these are ‘World Heritage’ sites and should be for the benefit for everybody. It should be beyond politics. We are not speaking of Jewish, Christian or Muslim sites. We are speaking of culture.”