Thursday, June 21, 2012

Palestine nominates birthplace of Jesus in controversial UNESCO World Heritage bid

Palestine, recognized last October as the 195th member state by the U.N. Educational Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), recently launched its first initiative as a full-fledged government in the Paris-based agency, nominating the Church of Nativity in Bethlehem and a traditional pilgrimage route to be listed as an endangered site on the World Heritage List.

The fate of the Palestinian bid will be decided along with 35 other sites by a commission of 21 state parties to the World Heritage Convention at a June 24-July 6 conference in St. Petersburg, Russia. But the case has already become embroiled in controversy.

The Palestinian action, of course, has broader political significance, representing a new assertion of sovereignty in a place -- Bethlehem -- where Palestinians police the streets but Israel exercises control over what goes in and out.

And the move is clearly opposed by Israel and the United States, who have objected to the Palestinian effort to secure the rights of statehood through the United Nations, rather than through negotiated settlement with Israel.

But the initiative has run into problems that have little to do with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. In its submission, the Palestinians argued that the supposed birthplace of Jesus Christ had fallen into disrepair as a result of Israel's occupation of Palestinian lands since 1967 and that internationally sponsored emergency repairs were needed to prevent the site from collapsing. Israel, the Palestinians claim, has also imposed limits on free movement that have undercut efforts to import basic supplies to maintain the building.

But the World Heritage List's own advisory body, the International Council on Monuments and Sites (ICOMOS), has dismissed those claims, contending in a detailed review of the nomination that the site is not actually in such dire straits and that it does not require emergency care.

The most serious threats to the preservation of the holy places, according to ICOMOS, are unregulated tourism, rampant development, and the failure of the three religious denominations -- the Greek Orthodox Church, the Roman Catholic Church, and the Armenian Church -- that own separate parts of the complex to agree on a conversation plan.

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Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Secretary Salazar Approves San Antonio Missions for World Heritage Nomination

Missions one step closer to prestigious status; play key role in tourism and jobs

SAN ANTONIO, Texas – At the historic Mission Concepción, Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar today announced that the Department of the Interior has officially authorized the San Antonio Franciscan Missions for nomination to the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) World Heritage List.

Secretary Salazar’s visit to the urban parks of San Antonio is part of President Obama’s America’s Great Outdoors initiative to establish a 21st century approach to conservation Century and to reconnect Americans to our nation’s natural, cultural, and historic heritage – growing outdoor recreation, travel and tourism economy and creating jobs in communities across the country.

“World Heritage Sites represent an incredible opportunity for the United States to market our most significant places as destinations for domestic and international travelers,” said Secretary Salazar. “San Antonio Missions National Historical Park preserves four missions that embody the cultural roots of this great city and represents the single largest concentration of Spanish Colonial resources in the United States. As we continue to make progress in achieving this prestigious status for the Missions and for San Antonio, we also are moving forward to make America the world’s number one tourist destination – creating jobs and growing our economy.”

Today’s announcement represents a key step in an official process whereby the National Park Service will propose the nomination to the 21-nation World Heritage Committee during the next available round of nominations. It comes as the U.S. National Committee for ICOMOS (International Council on Monuments and Sites) celebrates the 40th anniversary of the UNESCO World Heritage Convention as part of its annual international symposium, held this year in San Antonio, where Secretary Salazar delivered remarks last night.

The nomination dossier will be completed by the end of 2013, in time for consideration by the World Heritage Committee in 2015.

World Heritage listing is a prestigious designation that acknowledges the historical, cultural or natural value of a site, as well as the commitment of the sovereign nation and the site’s owners to its long-term protection and management. Under the World Heritage Convention, the Secretary of the Interior is charged with identifying and nominating worthy U.S. sites that display superlative cultural and/or natural attributes for designation.

Current World Heritage Sites in the United States include some of our most iconic places, ranging from historic places such as Independence Hall and Mesa Verde to spectacular natural parks like the Grand Canyon and Yosemite.

The San Antonio Franciscan Missions, currently on the Tentative List of Potential Future Nominations and recently recommended for World Heritage nomination by the Federal Interagency Panel for World Heritage, includes four missions (San Antonio Missions National Historical Park) and the Alamo (Mission San Antonio de Valero).

“The missions represent an important – and often overlooked – chapter of our nation’s history,” Salazar added. “It’s important that visitors from around the world know and celebrate the contributions of Latinos to the fabric of America, and these missions help tell that story in a very real way.”

The World Heritage Convention in many ways extends and elaborates on the national park concept, first developed in the United States, on the global scale. Better marketing of these sites to international travelers is a critical part of the Obama administration’s National Tourism and Travel Strategy (pdf), which delivered on President Obama’s call in January for a national strategy to promote domestic and international travel opportunities throughout the United States.

In his remarks, Secretary Salazar noted the strong economic benefits offered by the San Antonio Missions National Historical Park. Attracting more than 1.6 million visitors a year, the Park supports nearly $100 million in economic activity annually. Those dollars translate into over 1,100 jobs for the local San Antonio community. A National Parks Conservation Association report estimated that a $1 investment in the park yields $16 in local economic activity.

International travelers tend to stay longer and spend more on everything from hotels, to restaurants, to rental cars and airfare. As the national economy continues to recover, making the U.S. an even more attractive international destination, better highlighting our most significant attractions – like the San Antonio Missions – and facilitating the arrival of international travelers will create homegrown jobs in the travel and tourism industry and encourage economic growth.

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

UNESCO: Warns Heritage Sites in Mali, Arab World at Risk

UNITED NATIONS - The United Nations cultural organization, UNESCO, warns that world heritage sites in the West African country of Mali and in the Arab world are at risk of damage and theft as political upheaval sweeps through those states.

The ancient city of Timbuktu saw its golden age as an Islamic intellectual and spiritual center in the 15th and 16th centuries. Its three great mosques, the Djingareyber, Sankore and Sidi Yahia, still stand as a testament to that time. But now, UNESCO warns, they are under threat from rebel groups, including Tuaregs and the al-Qaida-linked Ansar Dine.

UNESCO Assistant Director-General Francesco Bandarin said Friday that in addition to the mosques and several mausoleums, Timbuktu also has one of the world’s most important collections of ancient manuscripts.

“They have collected in Timbuktu in different collections, mostly private collections, a very large amount, over 30,000 manuscripts that are the most important library of religious and civil life in the Sahara. Also some of them are copied from previous times. It is an extremely important heritage of Islam and history there,” said Bandarin.

He said when the coup d’état began in late March the rebels did not loot the collections. But in mid-April, the situation worsened and some manuscripts were stolen from the Islamic research center in Timbuktu. He said UNESCO does not yet know how extensive the theft was.

UNESCO has warned Mali’s neighbors to be on the look-out for trafficked manuscripts. Bandarin noted that the illegal trade in antiquities worldwide is a $6 billion a year business, so that these treasures often end up on the black market and are sold to private collectors.

He said UNESCO sent a mission to Mali’s capital, Bamako, on Thursday to look into the situation further.

Bandarin says that while the Arab Spring has been good for democracy, it has not necessarily been kind to world heritage sites in Egypt, Libya, Yemen and Syria.