Nativity Church's Heritage Status Hailed as Milestone in Palestinian State-Building

A week after the United Nations' cultural arm granted the world heritage status to the ancient Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Salam Fayyad called it the "most remarkable" milestone in Palestinian state-building.

The inclusion of the church, believed to be the birthplace of Jesus Christ, is "the most remarkable event on the path of Palestinian state-building since the establishment of the Palestinian Authority," The Jerusalem Post quoted Fayyad as saying at a celebration ceremony at the Manger Square in Bethlehem on Saturday.

The celebration at the Manger Square, where the Church of the Nativity stands, included the inauguration of a plaque commemorating the UNESCO success.

The UNESCO voted on June 29 to grant the world heritage status to the Bethlehem church and the pilgrimage route at the meeting of the World Heritage 21-nation committee in St. Petersburg, Russia. Fayyad told the crowd Saturday it was "a recognition of our people, who deserve and are able to protect this humane heritage that Bethlehem and its jewel, the Nativity Church, represent."

Soon after the June 29 decision, 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." However, the Israeli prime minister's office responded by saying, "This is proof that UNESCO is motivated by political considerations and not cultural ones." Instead of taking steps to advance peace, the Palestinians are "acting unilaterally in ways that only distance it," he said.

Fayyad on Saturday called on the UN's institutions to protect the Palestinian people, land, holy places and human heritage from the Israeli "occupation" and "terror" of its settlers. "Here we are from the heart of Bethlehem where we overlook the Aksa mosque and the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, the eternal capital of our future state," he added.

The Palestinians, who were granted membership of 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.

The Palestinian tourism ministry has named 20 sites it is considering for future list nominations, including the cities of Bethlehem, Hebron and Nablus; archeological sites such as the Saint Hilarion Monastery in Gaza; and natural sites such as the Dead Sea and the Wadi Gaza Coastal Wetlands.

The Church of the Nativity is only about five miles from Jerusalem. The Palestinian Authority gained control over the city of Bethlehem in 1995.