Palestinians want Bethlehem on UN heritage list

The Palestinians on Monday made a formal bid to have the no-longer-so-little town of Bethlehem, birthplace of Jesus Christ, added to UNESCO's list of World Heritage sites.

"We are very proud to announce that we have submitted the nomination file of Bethlehem: birthplace of Jesus - Church of the Nativity and the Pilgrimage Route ... to the World Heritage Centre," tourism minister Khulud Daibes told reporters.

The addition of the West Bank town to the UNESCO list should have been almost automatic and accomplished a long time ago, but like most issues in the Holy Land, it has become entangled in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

And the Palestinians are hoping that getting the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization to recognise Bethlehem as a part of Palestinian cultural heritage will give impetus to their struggle to establish a state.

"This timing is crucial for us, it is part and parcel of our plan to end the (Israeli) occupation and build the institutions of the state of Palestine," Daibes said.

In the absence of constructive peace talks with Israel, Palestinian prime minister Salam Fayyad has been leading an effort to build institutions for a de-facto state.

They feel they have a strong case for Bethlehem's recognition when the UN committee meets to decide on the nominations in July 2012.

"Where Jesus Christ was born is one of the most important cultural places in the world. It is from here that the message of peace and light was brought to the world by the Prince of Peace," said Bethlehem mayor Victor Batarseh.

And UNESCO officials agree.

"Who can question that the Nativity Church is a world heritage site?" said Louise Haxthausen, head of UNESCO's Ramallah office, who has worked with the Palestinian tourism ministry in preparing the bid.

But in the end, UNESCO may not even be able to consider the bid for the same reason that it has not been added to the list to date: Palestine is not yet a recognised state.

At the same time as filing the nomination, the Palestinians have also applied for membership of the World Heritage Committee.

The tourism minister said she was hopeful the application would be accepted, though she conceded there was "no plan B."

Officials said UNESCO recognition was crucial to help preserve the Church of the Nativity, a fourth century basilica built by the Roman Emperor Constantine.

And preserving the church, which is built over the site of the stable where Mary is said to have given birth to Jesus after she and Joseph could not find any room at the inn, was key to maintaining Bethlehem's status as the premier Palestinian tourist attraction.

Following the start of the second Palestinian uprising in 2000, the spectre of unrest and violence kept tourists away, leaving the "little town" empty over several Christmases.

However, things began to change after the violence eased in 2005 and have gradually been improving, with 2010 being the third straight year Bethlehem has seen record numbers of visiting pilgrims and tourists.

Officials are now hoping that more than two million visitors will arrive in 2011 in the town of 27,000 that was, according to biblical scholars, a mere village outside Jerusalem in the period when Jesus was born.

Daibes said the bid was backed by the Greek Orthodox church as well as the Catholics and Armenians, who are custodians of the shrine.

It is not the first time that UNESCO has become embroiled in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, with the heritage of the Holy Land taking a more central role in the dispute.

Last November, Israel reduced its cooperation with UNESCO in protest at its description of Rachel's Tomb - a Jewish holy site near Bethlehem - as a mosque.

Rachel's Tomb, built over what is believed to be the burial place of the biblical matriarch, is the third holiest site in Judaism, but also considered a holy place for Muslims.

Earlier last year, Israel announced plans to include Rachel's Tomb and the Tomb of the Patriarchs in Hebron in a national heritage restoration plan - a decision criticised by UNESCO as "escalating tension" in the area.

Israel defended the decision at the time, saying the plan involved only restoration work and promising there would be no attempt to change the delicate status quo at these sites.

Daibes said Bethlehem was only the first site they were seeking to have added to the list of World Heritage sites, and that Hebron and the ancient oasis town of Jericho would be next.