Are the Palestinians about to get their first World Heritage Site? The question of whether to declare the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem an UNESCO site will be the main issue up for discussion as this year's annual meeting of the World Heritage Sites Committee, which runs from June 24-July 6, gets underway in St. Petersburg.
A total of 33 proposed locations are up for official recognition as World Heritage Sites for their "outstanding international value." The current list of heritage sites comprises 936 venues in 153 countries.
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The Palestinian Authority – which as far as UNESCO is concerned, counts as a country – is seeking UN recognition of the Church of Nativity, constructed over the cave where Jesus was supposedly born and therefore widely considered the second-most important site in Christianity.
The Church of the Nativity - built in 325 CE (Photo: Ziv Reinstein)
Bethlehem is the largest tourist destination in the PA, attracting 2 million visitors in 2011. The Church of the Nativity – built by Saint Helena, mother of the Roman Emperor Constantine I in 325 CE - is one of the oldest continuously operating churches in the world.
The Palestinians say that the church has not been renovated in the past 50 years and needs repair work. But the International Council on Monuments and Sites (ICOMOS), which evaluated the PA's request to declare the church a UNESCO site, submitted an opinion that PA officials had not conducted thorough research.
Daibes hopes a UNESCO site will boost PA tourism. (Photo: Ziv Reinstein)
In an exclusive interview to Ynet, Palestinian Tourism Minister Khouloud Daibes did not try to hide the PA's attempts to present as many sites as possible as "Palestinian," in hope that if one wins the distinction before the PA state is declared, it will boost tourism.
For the PA's Ambassador to UNESCO, Elias Sanbar, the experts' assessment of the Church of the Nativity was wrong. "Those who lost their bid to enter UNESCO," he said.