The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization will vote over the next week to determine if Palestine's Church of the Nativity, said to be the birthplace of Jesus Christ, will become a World Heritage site, a title reserved for locations that have "outstanding universal value" to all of humanity.
"There is no other site in the world that bears such an exceptional outstanding religious value for more than 2 billion Christians. There is only one site in the world that has the honor of being the birthplace of Jesus." the Palestinian delegation to UNESCO noted In its application to have the Church of the Nativity recognized as a World Heritage site.
UNESCO will meet for its 36th session from June 24 through July 6 in St. Petersburg, Russia to review 33 different requests for World Heritage site status, but the Palestinian bid for the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem to receive such status is set to dominate the meeting.
The site, which includes the Pilgrimage Route in Bethlehem that takes Christian pilgrims from Jerusalem to the church, is one of 33 hoping to join the list of 936 places in 153 countries deemed as World Heritage sites. A committee of 22 experts will decide on the outcome of the decision, which if positive, could bring economic benefits to the Palestinian territory in terms of funding for restoration and could draw additional tourists to the site.
The Church of the Nativity is one of the oldest operating churches in the world and is considered sacred by Christians. The first basilica was built in 327 under Emperor Constantine. The structure was destroyed in a fire and the current basilica was rebuilt in 565 under Emperor Justinian I. A silver star on the floor of the church marks the spot where Christ is believed to have been born.
If approved, the site would be listed as "Birthplace of Jesus: Church of the Nativity and the Pilgrimage Route, Bethlehem."
The World Heritage bid is the first from the Palestinians since joining the cultural body of the U.N. last October.
UNESCO voted to allow Palestine admission as a full member into its agency with a 107-14 vote from the organization's General Assembly, after President Mahmoud Abbas made a case for Palestinian statehood and U.N. membership last year. The decision was viewed as controversial by the U.S. and Israel, both of whom retracted funding for the organization, which resulted in a 22 percent cut in UNESCO's budget.
The U.S. continues to call for a negotiated settlement in the Israel/Palestine conflict before Palestine receives full membership to the U.N. and its affiliate bodies, but Palestinians welcomed the U.N.'s decision.
"For over six decades, Palestinians have proven to be superb human beings but have regrettably remained without their rights," the Palestinian representative for UNESCO said following the October vote. "Today this wrong has been righted."
The UNESCO Palestinian delegation submitted a total of 13 properties for consideration as World Heritage sites, including Qumran (Caves and Monastery of the Dead Sea Scrolls) and Mount Gerizim, a site sacred to the Samaritans.