The church, which has been built where Jesus Christ is believed to have been born, could become the Palestinian Territory’s first World Heritage site, it was revealed on Wednesday.
Bethlehem’s venerated Church of the Nativity and surrounding route taken by religious pilgrims has been nominated for the inclusion on the prestigious list before a UNESCO meeting to be held later this month.
Sites included are deemed as holding ‘outstanding universal value’ as part of the world’s shared heritage.
The nomination comes after Palestinian membership to UNESCO, the United Nations’ heritage body, was granted in October 2011, when UNESCO’s general assembly voted by 107-14 to accept the Palestinians.
The purpose of the organisation is ‘to contribute to the building of peace, the eradication of poverty, sustainable development and intercultural dialogue through education, the sciences, culture, communication and information’ and is most famous for its list of World Heritage sites.
There are 936 World Heritage sites, the list includes both man-made and natural wonders such as Stonehenge and Tower of London, The Grand Canyon, Notre Dame Cathedral, Machu Picchu and The Pyramids of Giza.
Bethlehem, situated in the West Bank, about five miles south of Jerusalem, is considered the Palestinian Territories’ top visitor destination partly due to the religious significance attached with the church.
One of the oldest surviving Christian churches in the world, it drew two million visitors last year, according to Nada Atrash, an architect and head of the research and training unit at Bethlehem’s Center for Cultural Heritage Preservation, which has been lobbying for the site’s inscription as a World Heritage destination.
She told CNN the centre considered Bethlehem’s inclusion on the list ‘as a Palestinian dream, and as a reward of 11 years of work in the field of preserving the cultural and natural heritage in Palestine’.
Atrash said it was hoped that gaining World Heritage status would help efforts to boost Bethlehem’s appeal as a destination and keep visitors in the town for longer than a visit to the church.
“We are mainly seeking to extend the stay of the visitors, who usually drop (in) to Bethlehem for few hours to visit the church and leave without visiting the town,” the Daily Mail quoted her as telling CNN.
“We hope that this inscription would contribute to both the promotion of the site and its protection,” she said.
The condition of the church, which has suffered extensive earthquake damage in its history, has been a major concern.
One of the issues is that the responsibility for its administration is shared between three religious authorities -- the Greek Orthodox, Armenian and Roman Catholic churches.
On occasion, tensions between the groups have spilled over into violence.
One of Christianity’s most holy places, the site’s focal point is the Grotto of the Nativity, a rectangular cavern beneath the church that has been considered the site of Christ’s birth since at least the 2nd century.
A 14-pointed silver star set into the marble floor marks the precise spot where Christ is said to have been born.
In the 4th century, Emperor Constantine founded a church on the site, which was destroyed in the year 529, only to be replaced by larger structures, which form the basis of the church today.
UNESCO’s World Heritage Committee will consider the Church of the Nativity among 36 sites nominated for inclusion on the list at its next meeting, to be held from June 24 to July 6, in St Petersburg, Russia.
UNESCO spokeswoman Susan Williams said that it was impossible to predict the outcome of the meeting, where the committee would make its decisions ‘based on the information that is provided by the expert bodies, and the different presentations that are made’.
“If the committee approves, it it’s a done deal,” she added.