The ancient Church of the Nativity, built over the cave that is traditionally seen as the birthplace of Jesus, in the West Bank town of Bethlehem will finally get the long overdue repairs that have thus far been hindered by a longtime denominational rivalry over the structure’s ownership.
Even as the three denominations – Roman Catholics, Greek Orthodox and Armenian Orthodox, having the joint control over the 1,500-year-old church – have not been able to move forward with renovations, the government has taken the lead, Palestinian Tourism Minister Khouloud Daibes said.
“Our president has issued a decree to restore the roof and to prepare for the restoration of the church on behalf of the three churches and in coordination with the three churches, which obviously cannot do it on their own,” the minister said, according to Voice of America.
The urgently needed repair of the leaking wooden roof, the iron beams of which can fall any time on tourists below, will cost about $2 million and is expected to begin next year after Easter. The overall renovation is estimated to cost up to $15 million. While the government has raised part of the amount, the rest will be sought from the international community.
The Palestinian Authority has long been making efforts to get recognition for the church from UNESCO as a world heritage site – which became a possibility last month when the United Nation’s cultural arm controversially decided to recognize Palestine as a state without negotiations with Israel.
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.
The three Christian sects have had the money to renovate the church but none of them wants the others to be granted a right to a part of the church that is not theirs. “If you repair the roof, under Ottoman law, you own the structure,” Raymond Cohen, author of a book about renovations at Jerusalem’s Church of the Holy Selpuchre, told the U.K.’s Independent newspaper. “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.”
The church was placed on the 2008 Watch List of the 100 Most Endangered Sites by the World Monuments Fund.
“The present state of the church is worrying,” the Watch List said. “Many roof timbers are rotting, and have not been replaced since the 19th century. The rainwater that seeps into the building not only accelerates the rotting of the wood and damages the structural integrity of the building, but also damages the 12th-century wall mosaics and paintings. The influx of water also means that there is an ever-present chance of an electrical fire.”
The church, completed by the Emperor Constantine in 333 AD, was destroyed in the early 6th century. It was rebuilt between 527 and 565 AD.