Just like in a cafe, we talk about everything. Nothing heavy. Just talk over a cup of coffee.

Saturday, June 30, 2012


ELIZABETH JACKSON: To Christians it might seem way overdue, but the church where Jesus was believed to have been born has now been added to the World Heritage Register.

A UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization) committee meeting in Russia has made an urgent vote to add the Church of Nativity in Bethlehem to the list.

But the decision has been highly political and controversial.

Our Middle East correspondent Anne Barker reports.

(Sound of church bells ringing)

ANNE BARKER: It's one of the oldest churches in the world, and hundreds of thousands of Christians make the pilgrimage every year.

But only now has the Church of Nativity, where Jesus was said to be born, been added to the World Heritage Register.

(George Saade speaking)

"It's our right as Palestinians, after we were accepted as a member in UNESCO", says Bethlehem's deputy mayor George Saade, "to record our historic and religious sites in this organisation".

ANNE BARKER: But the process of adding the church to the World Heritage list has been highly politicized and controversial, and it's cost UNESCO tens of millions of dollars in lost funding.

The UN agency defied opposition from the US and Israel last year to grant membership of UNESCO to the Palestinian Authority, even though Palestine is not a state.

And now it's gone a step further in granting World Heritage status to the church in a secret vote, 13 to six, at a meeting in St Petersburg, Russia.

The vote was rushed through after Palestinian leaders submitted the bid on an emergency basis, arguing that the church is in need of restoration and in danger of total destruction because of Israel's ongoing occupation of the West Bank.

(Omar Awadallah speaking)

"Israel is a member state of UNESCO, it should respect the control of Palestine over this site", says Omar Awadallah, a Palestinian foreign ministry official.

But Israel says the UNESCO decision essentially means the UN as a world body is backing the Palestinian view that the church is threatened by Israeli forces.

And it says it supported World Heritage Status for the church but under a different process that would have had no implications for the peace process.

Yigal Palmor is an Israeli foreign ministry spokesman.

YIGAL PALMOR: We have warned time and again that the premature recognition of Palestine by UNESCO would only lead to the hijacking of UNESCO's activities into the politicised sphere, where the Palestinian propaganda machine wants to take it. And now we see that this is precisely what is happening.

ANNE BARKER: The Palestinians' entry into UNESCO last year prompted the US to boycott the organisation and withdraw its funding, which amounts to more than $20 million a year.

But the political bickering over the church goes beyond Israeli and Palestinian leaders.

The three Christian denominations who share responsibility for the church's upkeep have fought for centuries over how that should be done.

And part of the urgency over the church's restoration stems from a long-running dispute between the Catholic, Greek Orthodox and Armenian Church leaders.

For their part they've given only limited support to the World Heritage listing, because of the perceived threat it might pose to their own rights over the famous church.

This is Anne Barker in Jerusalem for AM.


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