Thursday’s decision by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) to include the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem on its list of sites of World Heritage in Danger has drawn harsh reactions from Jewish leaders in Israel and the United States.
Last year, UNESCO voted overwhelmingly to admit the Palestinian Authority as a member, after a campaign to admit Palestine as a full UN member state stalled due to US and Israeli opposition.
The Church of the Nativity is one of the holiest sites in Christian tradition, which holds that it was built above the site of Jesus’ birth. A very popular site for Christian visitors, the church drew more than 2 million tourists in 2011.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s office released a statement on Saturday evening stating that “It has been proven that UNESCO is motivated by political, not cultural, considerations. Instead of the Palestinians carrying out steps that will advance peace, they take unilateral steps that only push peace further away.”
The statement added that “the world needs to remember that the Church of the Nativity, which is sacred to Christianity, has been desecrated in the past by Palestinian terrorists,” referring to an incident that took place in April-May 2002, during the Second Intifada, when armed Palestinians took refuge for 39 days in the Church of the Nativity as a result of Israel’s Operation Defensive Shield. During that time, the terrorists damaged holy objects, injured clergy and held hostages to ensure their own safety.
In a statement released on Friday by the Anti-Defamation League, ADL National Director, Abraham H. Foxman blasted the decision, saying that “the UNESCO World Heritage Committee has forsaken its responsibility for protecting the world’s most important and sacred sites, and has proven to be another hackneyed, politicized body.”
Foxman went on to emphasize that while the ADL does not dispute that the Church of Nativity is “a treasured and sacred site that could qualify for special status,” the objection is over the process by which the decision was reached. The statement pointed out that the International Council on Monuments and Sites, which is advisory body for the World Heritage Committee, concluded that the site does not fall into the category of requiring immediate, emergency care.
Foxman called on the United States to “re-evaluate the value of remaining a member of UNESCO.”
The United States, which was not a part of the 21-member committee that decided on the status of the Church of the Nativity, also expressed disappointment in the vote. David Killion, US ambassador to UNESCO, was quoted in an Associated Press report saying that the United States is “profoundly disappointed” by the World Heritage committee’s decision. “This body should not be politicized,” he said.
Also on Friday, B’nai B’rith International released a statement condemning the vote. B’nai B’rith International President Allan J. Jacobs said that the “Palestinians have defamed Israel, and misappropriated a Christian holy site to this end, by insinuating that the wellbeing of the Church of the Nativity is threatened by Israel.”
Daniel S. Mariaschin, B’nai B’rith Executive Vice President, added that the “Palestinians have once again successfully politicized the UN system to serve their goals, importing tension and conflict into the world body and devaluing the World Heritage process.”