One of my favourite memories is carrying my then two-year old daughter into the Church of the Nativity. We bent below the ancient wooden beam into the grotto where tradition says Jesus was born. During my time in Palestine I had the privilege of visiting the church several times and can still taste the musty air thick with history.
This week, history will revisit the Church of the Nativity as UNESCO's World Heritage Committee convenes in St. Petersburg, Russia, to consider whether the birthplace of Jesus should be recognized as a world heritage site. Since 1972, over 900 world heritage sites have been recognized by UNESCO, including the Old District of Quebec and the Rideau Canal.
Of the 900 sites around the world considered of universal importance to humanity, the birthplace of Jesus is auspiciously missing. Long overdue, this will be Palestine's first inscription, officially submitted as "The Birthplace of Jesus: Church of the Nativity and the Pilgrimage Route, Bethlehem."
Located in the old town of Bethlehem, the Church of the Nativity is one of the oldest continuously operating churches in the world and marks the beginnings of Christianity. One of the holiest places in Christendom, the Nativity and the pilgrimage route leading to it are directly associated with events and beliefs of outstanding universal significance to merit recognition as a world heritage site.
Not only is the remarkable architecture an illustration of a significant stage in human history, but so too is the 712-metre pilgrimage route on Star Street on the north side of Manger Square. This route is still followed each year by Palestinian Christians and international pilgrims during the Christmas holidays. Last year there were more than two million visitors to the site despite obstacles in place by Israel's occupation.
The occupation has also made it challenging to protect and preserve the church. Over the years experts have found holes in the timbers causing dirty water to drip upon the precious paintings and mosaics below. The leaky roof continues to damage the mosaics and icons on the columns and additional damage has been caused by violence attributed to the occupation.
The Greek Orthodox, the Franciscan and the Armenian churches maintain various parts of the church on an ad hoc basis premised on centuries-old agreements. Despite good intentions, the limited resources of the churches and sectarian politics have left the Church of the Nativity in need of critical restoration and protection. It is a job ideally suited for the technical experts at UNESCO.
The International Council on Monuments and Sites, which evaluates sites for UNESCO, prepared a report for the St. Petersburg meeting recommending 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." This, despite the fact that the UN General Assembly in 2000 recognized the birthplace of Jesus as "one of the most historic and significant sites on Earth."
In October 2011, Palestine was admitted as the 195th State Party to UNESCO with a vote of 107 to 14. In March 2012, Palestine became a Party to the World Heritage Convention and acted with the required urgency to submit the Church of the Nativity as a site in need of emergency protection because of the precarious and dilapidated state of the 1,500 year-old building.
Christians everywhere should take some comfort in the fact that such a holy site is finally being considered for universal recognition after 40 years and 900 other world heritage inscriptions.
The Church of the Nativity is undoubtedly part of humankind's universal heritage and Palestinians await with anticipation the decision in St. Petersburg this week to share this valuable cultural, religious and historical heritage with all the peoples of the world.