Mike Fegelman Headshot

Hey UNESCO, Keep Politics Out of Religion

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Politics is to religion, like oil is to water, they just don't mix. Recently, UNESCO politicized religion by labelling Bethlehem's Church of the Nativity as an endangered world heritage site, despite the fact that the UN's own experts investigating the state of the Church's premises concluded that the building is not in any urgent danger and that PA hype is just hot political air.

Cue Said Hamad, the Representative to the Palestinian General Delegation to Canada, who recently argued in a recent Huffington Post Canada commentary that UNESCO should urgently list the Church. Hamad misleadingly claimed the Church was "in need of critical restoration and protection" and that "the International Council on Monuments and Sites (ICOMOS), recommend(ed) that although the site unquestionably meets the requirements for world heritage, it is unclear whether the site requires urgent protection absent of further study. This is essentially UN-speak for "yes, the site meets the requirements for world heritage and it may be in need of urgent protection, but let's study it some more just to be sure."

Contrary to Hamad's assertions and spin, ICOMOS -- an organization which advises UNESCO on World Heritage bids like the PA's -- wrote that:

"[T]he Church of the Nativity and the Pilgrimage route in Bethlehem, Palestine should not be inscribed on the World Heritage List on an emergency basis. . . ICOMOS does not consider that the conditions required by paragraph 161 of the Operational Guidelines are fully met, concerning damage or serious and specific dangers to the Church of the Nativity that make its condition an emergency that needs to be addressed by the World Heritage Committee with immediate action necessary for the survival of the property."

Israel righty objected to the Church being included as a World Heritage site in "Palestine," seeing it as the latest Palestinian attempt to skirt negotiations in a unilateral pursuit of statehood through the United Nations. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu released a statement saying that: "It has been proven that UNESCO is motivated by political, not cultural, considerations. Instead of the Palestinians carrying out steps that will advance peace, they take unilateral steps that only push peace further away.... the world needs to remember that the Church of the Nativity, which is sacred to Christianity, has been desecrated in the past by Palestinian terrorists..." The U.S. State Department also vociferously condemned UNESCO for "hotwiring the PA heritage site" saying there "was no imminent danger to the Church, so no emergency procedure was needed."

Likewise, the leaders of the Greek Orthodox, Catholic and Armenian churches all rebuffed the Palestinian proposal saying that "...we do not think it opportune to deal with this request... due to different considerations."

According to UN Watch, "... the 21-nation UNESCO committee... includes such great promoters of human rights and culture as Algeria, Cambodia, Iraq, Malaysia, Mali, Qatar, Russia, Senegal, and the United Arab Emirates..." Given the make-up of this "expert" and "unbiased" committee, it was a foregone conclusion that UNESCO would approve the PA's gambit to put politics in front of religious considerations. This was the same organization whose executive board elected Syria to sit on its human rights committees this past November, all while the Assad regime was massacring its own people. At the time, Canada strongly criticized UNESCO's myopic methods.

Interestingly, PA Representative Hamad was silent about the Palestinian responsibility to repair, preserve, and protect the Church of the Nativity. Instead, he derided Israel by saying that in the "last year there were more than two million visitors to the site despite obstacles in place by Israel's occupation." Even though Israel facilitated, financed, and encouraged tremendous tourism for Bethlehem which saw over two million visitors while enforcing necessary security measures, for the Palestinian Authority, Israel is damned if it does and damned if it doesn't.

The World Heritage Committee of UNESCO did one thing right by voting to list Israel's Nahal Me'arot Nature Reserve as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. According to Israel's Ministry of Foreign Affairs: "The Site of Human Evolution at Mount Carmel in northern Israel consists of a group of prehistoric caves where early man lived continuously for hundreds of thousands of years... Nahal Me'arot joins 7 other World Heritage sites that are located in Israel. The other sites are: the Old City of Jerusalem; the Bahá'i Holy Places in Haifa and the Western Galilee; Biblical Tels - Megiddo, Hazor and Beer Sheba; the Incense Route - Desert Cities in the Negev; Masada; the Old City of Acre; and the White City of Tel-Aviv."

The politicization of religion is not new. Palestinian protagonists have mused about their intentions to exploit UNESCO to further deligitimize Israel. A recent Time magazine article noted how Palestinian officials openly talk about using UNESCO to prohibit Jews from worshipping at Hebron's Tomb of the Patriarchs despite Jewish ties to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. Senior Palestinian Authority officials have claimed in the past that the Jerusalem's Western Wall, the closest accessible Jewish holy site, had no religious significance to Jews and was in fact holy Muslim property.

Just as UNESCO wrongly politicized religion by designating the Church of the Nativity as an endangered site, it may be (mis)used as a political weapon to deny Jewish historical connection to revered biblical sites in Israel. One wonders, will Palestinian Representative Hamad's next Huffington Post commentary declare: "Dear UNESCO, List Jerusalem's Western Wall as a Muslim, not Jewish Holy Site"?

Only time will tell.