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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