RAMALLAH, West Bank -- A United Nations panel voted Friday to include holy sites in the biblical city of Bethlehem on the World Heritage list, to the applause of Palestinian officials and the anger of their Israeli counterparts.
A committee of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) voted 13 to 6, with two abstentions, to include the ancient Church of the Nativity, revered by Christians as Jesus' birthplace, along with the city's Pilgrimage Route on the World Heritage list of endangered sites. The panel met in St. Petersburg, Russia.
Palestinians saw the World Heritage Committee's decision as international recognition of their jurisdiction over Bethlehem and its holy sites, in addition to making the church eligible for UNESCO funding for badly needed repairs and renovations.
Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Salam Fayyad quickly praised the vote as "a victory for righteousness, justice and humanitarian principles."
However, Israel denounced the decision, with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's office releasing a statement that said, "This proves UNESCO is driven by political considerations and not cultural ones. Instead of taking steps to advance the peace, the Palestinians are taking unilateral actions that only push it farther away."
"The world should remember that the Church of the Nativity, holy to Christians, had been defiled in the past by Palestinian terrorists," the statement noted, referring to the seizure of the site by gunmen in 2002.
The Palestinian Authority sought UNESCO's recognition of the Church of the Nativity in spite of Israeli and U.S. objections, as well as opposition from the leaders of three churches in Jerusalem that consider themselves guardians of Christian sites in the Holy Land.
Greek Orthodox Patriarch Theophilos III, the Franciscan Custodian of the Holy Land Pierbattista Pizzaballa, and Armenian Patriarch Torkom Manoogian wrote Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas in April telling him that "in our opinion, we do not think it opportune to deal with this request that the Basilica and its entire complex be included in the list of World Heritage sites."
However, Palestinian Arab Christians in general were in favor of the vote.
"The international community has a legal and moral responsibility to protect our sites," Bethlehem community organizations and figures wrote to the World Heritage Committee ahead of Friday's vote. "We believe that this is a step in the direction of peace, providing historical justice to our city, its holy places and its people."
The Palestinian government became an official member state of UNESCO in October, prompting the U.S. government to stop its $80-million annual funding of the U.N. organization.
-- Maher Abukhater
Batsheva Sobelman in Jerusalem contributed to this report.
Photo: A Palestinian flag stands in front of the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem on Friday. Credit: Musa al Shaer / AFP/Getty Images