In Washington they joke that no one is safe so long as Congress is in session, but nothing can compare to the “Flat Earth” society operating within the UN system.
Last week, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization made a series of decisions regarding religious sites in the Holy Land that are both patently absurd and woefully unhelpful in the search for peace and mutual understanding in this fractured region.
First, UNESCO followed up on last year’s admission of “Palestine” as a member state of the world body by listing the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem as a World Heritage site located in this nonexistent country of Palestine.
Incredibly, the traditional place of Christ’s birth and the pilgrimage route leading to it were also added to the list of endangered World Heritage sites.
In pushing for this decree, the Palestinian Authority argued that the Church of the Nativity was in danger because the “Israeli occupation” was preventing them from repairing a leaky roof in the church as well as blocking access to this revered site.
Ahead of the vote, a team of UNESCO experts had visited Bethlehem and determined that the church, in fact, was not endangered and did not even qualify yet for World Heritage status. The Catholic, Greek Orthodox and Armenian Orthodox clerics who oversee the Nativity compound concurred with these findings in a letter sent to UNESCO in April, which urged that the site not be turned into a political football.
Yet a majority of the UNESCO World Heritage Committee did just that at its annual session in St. Petersburg last Friday. Ignoring the pleas of the clergymen and the advice of their own experts, 13 of the 21 member states on the Committee voted to prematurely grant the church World Heritage status and blame Israel for endangering it.
Now Israel was not opposed to listing the Nativity Church as a place of great significance to the entire world. But it did object to the politicizing of the process and to the finding that it is endangered. After all, nothing is stopping the roof repairs and over two million Christian pilgrims managed to safely visit the Church of the Nativity last year.
In another swipe at Israel last week, the UNESCO Committee also endorsed a Jordanian declaration from some 30 years ago that accused Israel of endangering the Temple Mount and walls of the Old City of Jerusalem.
Amman managed to add Jerusalem’s walled city and the Temple Mount to the World Heritage list in 1981 and then to the endangered list in 1982. But according to the Petra news agency, UNESCO has now accepted the Hashemite Kingdom’s claim that it has jurisdiction over these areas and that the Israeli occupation is harming the cultural heritage of the city.
The issue of Jerusalem is back on UNESCO’s agenda because Israel is trying to repair a rickety foot bridge to the Mughrabi Gate, the only access to the Temple Mount compound for Jews and Christians. It has been in danger of collapsing in recent years due to local earth tremors and heavy winter rains, and Israeli authorities have developed plans to replace the wooden bridge with a sturdier structure.
But Jordan has objected, insisting it alone has the right to make the repairs. The Palestinians also exert a claim to being the proper guardian of the Muslim and Christian holy sites in Jerusalem, yet the PA backed the recent Jordanian effort at UNESCO.
This is because the Israeli plan calls for first conducting an archeological excavation of the embankment underneath the Mughrabi bridge and the Palestinians are afraid even more artifacts will be uncovered there proving the ancient Jewish connection to the area.
So it is clear that the Palestinians are once again manipulating UN forums like UNESCO, where they enjoy automatic majorities against Israel, to further their political campaign to delegitimize the Jewish state. In this instance, they have portrayed Israel as a reckless and uncivilized destroyer of cherished Christian and Muslim holy places, and thus unfit to be included in the family of nations.
In addition, the PA is once again circumventing direct talks with Israel to achieve peace or cooperation at any level and instead trying to impose solutions from the outside.
UNESCO should not be lending itself to such machinations, as this undermines its own stated goal of contributing to the building of peace among nations and peoples through an intercultural dialogue based upon respect for commonly shared values.
Yet UNESCO members have now entrusted a revered church to a Palestinian regime that has compiled a sordid record on safeguarding Christian and Jewish religious sites. For example, PA police stood by in October 2000 while a Palestinian mob looted and razed Joseph’s Tomb in Nablus. Upon orders from PA leader Yasser Arafat, PA security forces also assaulted and forcefully removed Russian Orthodox priests and nuns at monasteries in Hebron and Jericho.
Perhaps the most egregious example of the PA’s lack of credibility when it comes to safeguarding holy sites occurred at the very Church of the Nativity now entrusted to the Palestinians. In a dramatic April 2002 standoff with IDF troops, gunmen from Arafat’s own Fatah faction truly endangered the historic Church by commandeering the building and wiring it throughout with explosives.
In contrast, it cannot be stressed enough that Israel has a far better record on safeguarding and allowing access to holy sites than any other sovereign who has ruled the Holy Land over these many centuries.
Yet the fiasco goes on! And the latest UNESCO decisions will only whet the Palestinians’ appetite to encroach on more religious sites within Israel. In 2010, it was Rachel’s Tomb near Bethlehem. Next, we could see the PA exerting its claim to the Western Wall, which they insist is a Muslim holy site known as the al-Buraq Wall, where Muhammad tied his winged horse in his mythical “Night Journey.” After all, it lies just inches away from the “Israeli occupied” Mughrabi bridge.
The writer is media director for the International Christian Embassy Jerusalem, www.icej.org.