Selecting World Heritage Sites in a State of Denial

In his bid last September to win formal recognition by the UN of a Palestinian state, PLO chairman and Palestinian Authority president Mahmoud Abbas, in his address to the UN General Assembly, referred to the Holy Land as “the land of Palestine, the land of divine messages, ascension of the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) and the birthplace of Jesus Christ (peace be upon him)….” There was no mention of the 4000-year Jewish presence in the Holy Land.  Jews worldwide were justifiably offended.  Abbas’ denial of a Jewish connection to the Holy Land disturbed many Christians as well, myself included, who perceived Abbas’ refusal to acknowledge Jewish history in the region not only as a gross injustice to the Jews, but also as an assault on the Jewish Jesus.

After a failed attempt to be recognized by the UN Security Council, Abbas petitioned the UN cultural agency UNESCO for membership. On 13 December 2011, UNESCO admitted “Palestine” as a full member of the organization in breach of UNESCO’s own Constitution, after the Palestinians garnered only 107 votes, not the requisite 129.

One of UNESCO’s activities is the selection and maintenance of sites of particular historical and cultural value around the world, or World Heritage Sites, as they are called.  Now a full-fledged member of UNESCO, albeit illegally, the Palestinians are calling for the city ofBethlehem, including the Church of the Holy Nativity, located on the spot said to be the birthplace of Jesus, to be officially recognized as the first Palestinian World Heritage Site. The Palestinian application will be considered at the upcoming June UNESCO meeting inSt. Petersburg,Russia.

The prospect of having the Church of the Holy Nativity recognized as a Palestinian World Heritage Site is a troubling one, for if Abbas can erase four millennia of Jewish history without any qualms, what is to prevent him and his fellow Palestinians from historical revisionism when it comes to the Child born in Bethlehem—Jesus, a Jewish baby born to observant Jewish parents in Bethlehem, the city of David; a Jewish child hailed as the long-awaited ‘son of David’ whose coming was prophesied by Jewish prophets over the centuries; a Jew recognized as the Messiah by the Jewish writers of the New Testament.  Abbas’ behaviour at the UN does not inspire confidence.

Nor do the past actions of the Palestinians.  As part of Operation Defensive Shield in 2002, the IDF (Israel Defense Forces) occupied Bethlehem in an attempt to capture Palestinian militants.  About 200 Palestinian militants took refuge in the Church of the Holy Nativity for 39 days, from April 11 to May 10. Ignoring the religious significance of the location, the militants took forty Christian clergy and nuns hostage, stole prayer books, crucifixes, candelabras—anything that looked like gold.

It is instructive as well to see how UNESCO has handled, or more accurately, mishandled Jewish religious sites in the region.  Responding to Muslim clerics who claim that Rachel’s Tomb was a Muslim site  thousands of years ago, UNESCO has declared Rachel’s Tomb and the Tomb of the Patriarchs near Jerusalem are not exclusively Jewish sites but belong to Christians and Muslims as well.

Understandably, the three Christian denominations whose job it has been to take care of the church since 1852 oppose recognition of the church as a Palestinian World Heritage Site as well, at least for the present time.   Father Pierbattista Pizzaballa, speaking for the Catholic Church and claiming support from the Greek Orthodox and Armenian patriarchates, fears that the church might be used for political purposes. (Indeed!)  Moreover, UNESCO recognition, according to Father Pizzaballa, would make it difficult for the current custodians to run the site, since the church, once designated a World Heritage Site, would fall under the jurisdiction of UNESCO and the church’s custodians would have to follow UN rules.

Given Abbas’ blatant disregard for the historical realities of the region, the illegality of Palestinian membership in UNESCO, past Palestinian attitude to the holy sites in the region, plus the objection of the church’s present custodians, the UNESCO committee which meets this coming June to select World Heritage Sites must wisely say “no” to the Palestinian request.

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