UNESCO Declares Bethlehem Church a World Heritage Site

Last week, UNESCO accepted Palestinians’ application to have Bethlehem’s Church of the Nativity (left), the traditional site of Jesus’ birth, declared a “World Heritage Site” under the Convention Concerning the Protection of World Cultural and Natural Heritage. The list of roughly 1000 such sites worldwide, nominated by states that have signed the Convention, is essentially an honor roll, though named properties can qualify for UN restoration funds and for protection under the laws of war. Adding the Church of the Nativity was more controversial than usual. The US and Israel objected because of the implications for Palestinian statehood. Additionally, the three Christian communions that share the shrine under the 19th-Century Status Quo, which CLR Forum has discussed before, worry that designation as a World Heritage Site will lead to interference from civil authorities. In fact, the threat of outside interference typically gets the communions to settle differences among themselves, which may explain last fall’s agreement on repairs to the church’s roof. This is not the first time the church has been the subject of world diplomacy. In the 19th Century, rival claims to the church caused an international crisis that contributed to the Crimean War.

Bethlehem Church to Get New Roof

As Christmas approaches, word this week that the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem (left), the traditional site of Jesus’ birth, will get a new roof. The roof, which is centuries old, has needed replacing for some time, but the three Christian communions that share the church – Armenian Apostolic, Greek Orthodox, and Roman Catholic – have been unable to agree on a plan. The story behind their disagreement, and the reason why they have had such a hard time resolving it, is a fascinating one.

The three communions share the church under the “Status Quo,” a set of rules and customs that date back centuries to Ottoman times, and which also govern other Christian sites like the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem. The provisions are incredibly detailed. For example, the Status Quo specifies the times of day when communions may have access to specific altars, the permissible length of religious services, the proper placement of chalices, the ownership of lamps and icons, and, crucially, the right to repair sections of the church. According to custom, to repair part of the church, or even to pay for repairs, is an assertion of ownership. As a result, each communion carefully guards against the possibility that another will undertake repairs in common areas, like the roof, and thereby gain rights by a sort of adverse possession.

All this seems a bit arcane today to outsiders, but the Status Quo has occupied a major place in diplomatic history and international law. In the 19th Century, France, seeking to increase its influence in the Middle East, agitated for Catholic control of the church and other Christian shrines in the Holy Land; Russia, seeking to resist French influence, agitated on behalf of the Orthodox. The Status Quo was in fact an attempt by the Ottomans to freeze everybody in place as of 1852 and avoid further conflict. When someone removed a silver cross the French had donated to the church (above), the theft sparked an international incident that led ultimately to the Crimean War. In the treaty that ended the war in 1856, the belligerents endorsed the Status Quo, and it has been honored by the rulers of Bethlehem – the Ottomans, the British, the Jordanians, the Israelis, and now the Palestinians – ever since.

The present agreement to replace the roof has been brokered by the Palestinian Authority, which has somehow persuaded everybody to cooperate. Really, there isn’t much choice, as experts say the roof could collapse at any time. Work is to begin next year.