For centuries, millions of people from all over the world have traveled to the holy city of Bethlehem to worship, to reflect, and to experience the story of their faith. And the majestic, awe-inspiring, ancient Church of the Nativity — the traditional site of Jesus’ birth and one of the oldest active Christian churches in the world — is an anchor for the city. It’s time for Christians all over the world to fall in love again with the Church of the Nativity.
First constructed in AD 339 under the direction of Emperor Constantine and rebuilt in the 6th century after a devastating fire, the Church of the Nativity remains a pilgrimage site for both Christians and Muslims. In 2002, the church was named a World Heritage Site by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) for its “[direct association] with the birth of Jesus, an event of outstanding universal significance, through the buildings of which were constructed in the 4th century AD and re-constructed in the 6th century AD. These are a strong symbol for more than 2 billion Christian believers in the world, and are holy to Christians as well as to Muslims.”
The Palestinian Presidential Committee for the Restoration of the Church of the Nativity began to restore the church in 2013 with permission from the three custodians: the Eastern Orthodox, Armenian Orthodox, and the Roman Catholic churches. The last renovation of the church was completed 500 years ago, and if we had waited another 500 years, then there would no longer be a Church of the Nativity. It was critical to intervene, as the church was in danger of collapsing.
As a result of the dedication and generosity of our staff and supporters, the Church of the Nativity was removed from UNESCO’s list of World Heritage in Danger sites in 2019. Though, the work isn’t done. We at the Bethlehem Development Foundation supported the restoration work early on, starting with studies in 2011, and will continue to do so until completion, which is expected in 2022.
The restoration of the Church of the Nativity is of utmost importance to Christians and Muslims. It stands as a tangible reminder that religious pluralism, which is essential to human flourishing, is strengthened by preserving cultural heritage.
As the managing director and CEO of the Bethlehem Development Foundation and as a Christian, I make time to travel to other places to try to discover our faith origins. We have holy places in the Holy Land that we have yet to uncover, and we have to go and find them and protect them, not merely for their tourism value, but because they are essential to the preservation of religious pluralism and religious freedom.
For example, we have the ruins of the Church of the Kathisma, where the Virgin Mary is said to have rested when she was leaving Bethlehem to travel to Nazareth with Joseph. Sadly, that site has been left in the open without protection, and no one seems to be worried about it, even though the church was most likely a place of worship and of refuge in the 8th century.
This site and many others are like a puzzle we have to complete to fully understand the story of our history. We know the history, but these places connect the dots. Every place is important and we have to preserve them. Our past informs our present and our future.
In the past, the majority of Bethlehem’s inhabitants were Christians. During the 7th century, the Christian population started to diminish into a minority of only 1-2.5% of the people living in the West Bank. To preserve our presence, we have to prove that our faith is still here.
Muslims also revere many Christian figures like the Virgin Mary and Jesus. They also have an interest in preserving the Church of the Nativity because it is part of their faith and culture too. In fact, we received two donations for the Church of the Nativity from the Arab Fund for Economic & Social Development, which did not come from Christian countries. The U.S. government has not supported or accepted any of our requests for funding, although the American people generously supported earlier projects. Small investments in pluralism and religious freedom often provide a much better return on a local level than trillions of dollars invested in regional wars.
The year before the COVID-19 pandemic devastated the globe, the numbers of visitors to the Church of the Nativity was unlike any we had ever seen. The queue went all around the inside of the church, all the way back to Manger Square outside the church, and the wait to get inside was three hours long.
This great church must continue to be a light in the darkness for generations to come.
Mazen Karam is Managing Director and CEO of the Bethlehem Development Foundation (BDF), which works to regenerate and revitalize Bethlehem and its surrounding area to transform it into a vibrant international tourist destination. The American Friends of the Bethlehem Development Foundation is a US non-profit that supports the efforts of BDF to restore the Church of the Nativity and Manger Square. Visit: https://afbdf.org/