Last updated: 2 July, 2012

Latin church welcomes UNESCO decision on Bethlehem

The Roman Catholic church in the Holy Land on Monday hailed the granting by UNESCO of world heritage status to the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem as a “diplomatic victory” for the Palestinians.

But it called on the Palestinian Authority to respect existing arrangements dividing care of the West Bank site between the Catholic, Greek Orthodox and Armenian churches.

“There is an internal regulation, the status quo, which regulates the relations between the various Christian communities and their rights and duties in relation to the operation and maintenance of the (Church of the) Nativity,” a statement from the Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem said.

“It is desirable that UNESCO and the Palestinian Authority respect this and intervene only in exceptional cases,” it said.

UNESCO, the United Nations cultural body, overrode Israeli objections on Friday to urgently grant world heritage status to the church worshipped as the birthplace of Jesus.

The 13-6 secret vote to add the Church of the Nativity and its pilgrimage route to the prestigious list was rapturously received by the Palestinians but dismissed by Israel as politically motivated.

“The fact that the Palestinian Authority worked for this (UNESCO) declaration represents a diplomatic victory,” the patriarchate said.

“Bethlehem is part of the Palestinian territories, so it was for the Palestinian Authority a right and indeed a duty,” it added.

The Palestinian bid had faced serious hurdles, including the continued opposition of the United States and Israel, a negative report from the body that evaluates sites for UNESCO and, reportedly, domestic disagreements.

The three faiths charged with the site’s care had also expressed reservations about the Palestinian Authority bid fearing it could lead to exploitation of the site and erosion of its special status.

But the Catholic Custodian of the Holy Land, Franciscan father Pierbattista Pizzaballa, said the faiths had received written assurances from Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas that they would remain autonomous in the management of the Church of the Nativity.

“For the churches, holy places must remain holy sites and culture and local and international politics should not intervene in (their) management,” he wrote on his order’s web site.