(Photo: AP/Nasser Shiyoukhi)
The ancient Church of the Nativity in the Palestinian town of Bethlehem has been placed on the list of World Heritage sites by the United Nation's cultural arm. The move was opposed by the United States and Israel.
U.N. Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) voted to grant the world heritage status to the church, traditionally seen as the birthplace of Jesus, and pilgrimage route at the meeting of the World Heritage 21-nation committee in St. Petersburg, Russia, on Friday.
The Associated Press quoted Sue Williams, UNESCO spokeswoman, as saying the committee voted 13-6 to put the Christian site, which needed urgent repairs, on the list. The United States and Israel opposed it, and two nations abstained.
Palestinians, who were granted membership in UNESCO last October, had pressed to have the church and pilgrimage route inscribed as an emergency candidate.
The Palestinian Authority had long been making efforts to get recognition for the church as a world heritage site, which many saw an attempt to mix politics and culture.
The United States is against Palestinians getting full membership in international organizations until they reach a peace deal with Israel.
Israel accused the UN body of playing politics. "This is proof that UNESCO is motivated by political considerations and not cultural ones," said a statement by the Israeli prime minister's office. "Instead of taking steps to advance peace, the Palestinians are acting unilaterally in ways that only distance it."
However, Palestinian Foreign Minister Riyad Malki said in a statement that "the victory of Palestine in international organizations" was "the beginning of the end of the Israeli occupation."
"Now we are responsible for our cultural and historical sites as part of human civilization as a whole," Hanan Ashrawi, a member of the Palestine Liberation Organization's executive committee who heads the group's Department of Culture and Information, told CNN. "Politically it is important, because it is the beginning of the loosening of the control of the Israeli occupation on our land, on our lives, on our culture and at all attempts of confiscation and distortion of our cultural heritage and reality."
The Church of the Nativity on Manger Square is only about five miles from Jerusalem. The Palestinian Authority gained control over the city of Bethlehem in 1995. The church is the main tourist attraction in Palestine, which gets about 2 million tourists each year.