O little church in Bethlehem – basilica decays as sects squabble over who pays

 

Jerusalem

When it comes to fixing the church roof, rarely has it been so difficult to reach agreement as at the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem. But, after a centuries-old stand-off between rival religious sects, it looks as if the reputed birthplace of Jesus may finally get the renovation it so badly needs.

With Palestine's recent admission to Unesco, the body responsible for protecting historic sites, the Palestinian Authority hopes to win recognition for the 1,500 year-old basilica as a World Heritage site, the first step towards tapping the UN's cultural body for the millions of dollars it needs to fund repairs.

After centuries of neglect that experts believe have damaged the frescoes beyond repair, Palestinian officials say that the most urgent renovations should now go ahead next year. "We will start with the roof," said Ziad al-Bandak, an adviser to the Palestinian Authority on Christian affairs. "Hopefully we can start after Easter."

Experts estimate the cost of the entire renovation could reach between $10-$15m (£6.5-£9.7m). The most urgent repair of the leaking roof comes in at roughly €1.5m, Mr Bandak said, some of which money has already been raised. Palestinian officials say the rest will depend on Unesco, itself facing a $65m funding cut from the United States for its decision to admit Palestine.

The Church of the Nativity is among the oldest churches in the world, surviving earthquakes and fires, and more recently, the 2002 siege of Bethlehem, when Palestinian militants took refuge in it. But it is the explosive tensions between the Christian custodians that are the greatest threat to the basilica.

The three communities with rights to the church – the Greek Orthodox, the Armenian Orthodox and the Roman Catholics – can all find the money to repair it. But none of the three sects has been willing to allow the others to pay for repairs, fearful that it will give the others a right to a part of the church that is not theirs.

"If you repair the roof, under Ottoman law, you own the structure," said Raymond Cohen, who has written a book about renovations at Jerusalem's Church of the Holy Selpuchre. "In the pub, you want somebody else to buy the round. In the Church of the Nativity, it's the opposite. Everyone wants to pay."

Tempers can quickly flare over the most basic of tasks. Several years ago, monks flew at each other after Greek Orthodox monks encroached on the Armenian area during a pre-Christmas clean-up, prompting the intervention of Palestinian police.

The PA has sidestepped these rivalries by proposing to oversee the repairs, drawing for some funds on its own coffers but mainly on the international community, a suggestion accepted last year by religious leaders. It is, as one Palestinian official quipped, "the most successful example of Palestinian negotiations yet".

But the intervention comes not a moment too soon. In a damning Unesco report from 1997, the authors wrote that, when it rained, large puddles formed on the floor of the church, that dripping rainwater had damaged some of the wall and floor mosaics "beyond repair" and warned that loose masonry posed a serious threat to the safety of tourists. The roof hasn't been replaced since the 15th century, when King Edward IV of England sent lead, and Philip, Duke of Burgundy, dispatched wood and iron.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
PROMOTED VIDEO
News
ebooksNow available in paperback
Life and Style
life
Arts and Entertainment
Cold case: Aaron McCusker and Christopher Eccleston in ‘Fortitude’
tvReview: Sky Atlantic's ambitious new series Fortitude has begun with a feature-length special
Voices
Three people wearing masks depicting Ed Miliband, David Cameron and Nick Clegg
voicesPolitics is in the gutter – but there is an alternative, says Nigel Farage
Voices
The veterans Mark Hayward, Hugh Thompson and Sean Staines (back) with Grayson Perry (front left) and Evgeny Lebedev
charity appealMaverick artist Grayson Perry backs our campaign
News
i100
News
people
Sport
Chelsea manager Jose Mourinho
footballThe more Jose Mourinho attempts to influence match officials, the more they are likely to ignore him
Life and Style
Vote green: Benoit Berenger at The Duke of Cambridge in London's Islington
food + drinkBanishes thoughts of soggy school dinners and turn over a new leaf
News
Joel Grey (left) poses next to a poster featuring his character in the film
peopleActor Joel Grey comes out at 82
News
i100
News
business
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Ashdown Group: Marketing & Sales Manager

£40000 per annum: Ashdown Group: A reputable organisation within the leisure i...

Tradewind Recruitment: Science Teacher

£90 - £140 per day: Tradewind Recruitment: I am currently working in partnersh...

Recruitment Genius: Doctors - Dubai - High "Tax Free" Earnings

£96000 - £200000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Looking for a better earning p...

Recruitment Genius: PHP Developer

£32000 - £36000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A rapidly expanding company in ...

Day In a Page

Isis hostage crisis: The prisoner swap has only one purpose for the militants - recognition its Islamic State exists and that foreign nations acknowledge its power

Isis hostage crisis

The prisoner swap has only one purpose for the militants - recognition its Islamic State exists and that foreign nations acknowledge its power, says Robert Fisk
Missing salvage expert who found $50m of sunken treasure before disappearing, tracked down at last

The runaway buccaneers and the ship full of gold

Salvage expert Tommy Thompson found sunken treasure worth millions. Then he vanished... until now
Homeless Veterans appeal: ‘If you’re hard on the world you are hard on yourself’

Homeless Veterans appeal: ‘If you’re hard on the world you are hard on yourself’

Maverick artist Grayson Perry backs our campaign
Assisted Dying Bill: I want to be able to decide about my own death - I want to have control of my life

Assisted Dying Bill: 'I want control of my life'

This week the Assisted Dying Bill is debated in the Lords. Virginia Ironside, who has already made plans for her own self-deliverance, argues that it's time we allowed people a humane, compassionate death
Move over, kale - cabbage is the new rising star

Cabbage is king again

Sophie Morris banishes thoughts of soggy school dinners and turns over a new leaf
11 best winter skin treats

Give your moisturiser a helping hand: 11 best winter skin treats

Get an extra boost of nourishment from one of these hard-working products
Paul Scholes column: The more Jose Mourinho attempts to influence match officials, the more they are likely to ignore him

Paul Scholes column

The more Jose Mourinho attempts to influence match officials, the more they are likely to ignore him
Frank Warren column: No cigar, but pots of money: here come the Cubans

Frank Warren's Ringside

No cigar, but pots of money: here come the Cubans
Isis hostage crisis: Militant group stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

Isis stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

The jihadis are being squeezed militarily and economically, but there is no sign of an implosion, says Patrick Cockburn
Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action

Virtual reality: Seeing is believing

Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action
Homeless Veterans appeal: MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’

Homeless Veterans appeal

MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’ to help
Larry David, Steve Coogan and other comedians share stories of depression in new documentary

Comedians share stories of depression

The director of the new documentary, Kevin Pollak, tells Jessica Barrett how he got them to talk
Has The Archers lost the plot with it's spicy storylines?

Has The Archers lost the plot?

A growing number of listeners are voicing their discontent over the rural soap's spicy storylines; so loudly that even the BBC's director-general seems worried, says Simon Kelner
English Heritage adds 14 post-war office buildings to its protected lists

14 office buildings added to protected lists

Christopher Beanland explores the underrated appeal of these palaces of pen-pushing
Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

Scientists unearthed the cranial fragments from Manot Cave in West Galilee