(CNSNews.com) – Their identities hidden behind a secret ballot, 13 members of a UNESCO committee overruled the advice of independent experts and local church leaders when they voted for an “emergency” application by the Palestinian Authority to have the traditional birthplace of Jesus recognized as an endangered World Heritage site.
Friday’s vote in St. Petersburg, Russia also discounted the urging of the United States – the U.N. cultural agency’s biggest donor until last fall, and a member whose funding UNESCO officials are urgently trying to get restored.
The P.A., which in the run-up to the vote did not conceal its aim to use the issue for political ends, welcomed the result.
“Our identity, our place in civilization, in history, are being recognized, are beginning to be safeguarded in the face of the Israeli occupation’s encroachment, the confiscation of our land, our culture,” said Palestinian official Hanan Ashrawi.
The vote means that the Church of the Nativity and nearby pilgrimage route is now one of just 38 heritage sites around the world considered to be “in danger” (out of a total of 961 “World Heritage” sites).
P.A. foreign minister Riad Malki said the P.A. would now submit more sites, in the West Bank, Gaza Strip and Jerusalem.
The decision by UNESCO’s World Heritage Committee (WHC) – a 13-6 vote, with two abstentions – was the agency’s most flagrantly politicized move since it voted last fall to admit “Palestine” as a full member, a decision that compelled the Obama administration to withdraw funding in compliance with U.S. law.
The administration, which wants Congress to support a waiver that would enable it to restore the funding, expressed its disappointment over the vote, with U.S. ambassador to UNESCO David Killion saying the WHC “should not be politicized.”
Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.), chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, accused UNESCO of “sacrificing its core mission to politics.”
“The Obama administration and the U.N.’s apologists are doing relentless pro-UNESCO spin to gut U.S. law and restore funding to UNESCO,” she said. “Today, their efforts have been exposed as a sham.”
“U.S. law prohibiting funding to UNESCO and other bodies that admit ‘Palestine’ must stand – no waivers, no exceptions, no flexibility.”
That Friday’s vote was political was evident in the fact that UNESCO’s own advisory panel, the International Council on Monuments and Sites (ICOMOS), recommended a no vote – disputing the P.A. assertion that the need for protection for the ancient church is so urgent that it should be deemed an emergency. ICOMOS recommendations are almost universally followed by the committee.
Furthermore, Killion pointed out that in 40 years, “the emergency procedure has been used only four times and only in the most extreme cases, and always consistent with the recommendation of the advisory bodies.”
“The site is sacred to all Christians; it clearly has tremendous religious and historical significance,” Killion said. “However, the emergency procedure used in this instance is reserved only for extreme cases, specifically when a site is under imminent threat of destruction.”
Earlier, local heads of the three denominations that jointly administer the site, the Roman Catholic, Greek Orthodox and Armenian churches, told P.A. chairman Mahmoud Abbas in a cautiously-worded letter that the application was not “opportune.”
‘Exploiting a Christian icon for political purposes’
The identities of the 13 WHC members which voted in favor of the P.A. application are not known, since the ballot was secret, although France publicly declared that it was voting yes.
Other members on the 21-seat committee that are traditionally supportive of Palestinian causes include Algeria, Cambodia, India, Iraq, Malaysia, Mali, Mexico, Qatar, Russia, Senegal, Serbia, South Africa, Thailand and the United Arab Emirates.
The remaining members are Colombia, Estonia, Ethiopia, Germany, Japan, and Switzerland. The U.S. is not currently a member.
The Simon Wiesenthal Center, which earlier urged the WHC not to approve the application, was especially scathing of France’s support for the P.A. application.
“France bears the greatest responsibility for this outcome,” said the center’s director for international relations, Shimon Samuels, who attended the session. “The Wiesenthal Centre will convey its outrage to the French authorities, work with its friends to prevent further depredations against Christian properties and continue to campaign in international organizations in defense against identity theft of the Jewish heritage.”
Israeli ambassador Nimrod Barkan said the decision was political and damaged the heritage process. Israel does not oppose heritage status for the site, but saw the use of emergency rather than standard procedures as a political move.
“The P.A., of course, is exploiting [UNESCO] membership for political rather than heritage purposes, as well as seeking to delegitimize Israel,” said Calvin Smith, principal of King’s Evangelical Divinity School in Britain
“Abbas claims the church is under imminent threat of destruction by Israel, which is why it should receive special U.N. status immediately. But this is nothing at all to do with protecting a Christian holy site and everything to do with nationalist politics,” he said.
Noting that Abbas had decided to press ahead despite the ICOMOS recommendation, Smith said, “Exploiting a Christian icon for political purposes is too good a chance to miss.”
In its official application, the P.A. referred to the huge significance of the birthplace of Jesus to Christians – and said it was important to Muslims too.
“That Jesus was also Issa, a Muslim prophet, gives the place additional outstanding value, a particularly iconic one in the early 21st century,” it said.
The application was silent on Jewish heritage. Bethlehem is the burial place of Rachel – the wife of the biblical patriarch Jacob – as well as the city of Israel’s King David.
King David’s link to Bethlehem was the reason Jesus was born there in the first place. According to the Gospel of Luke, Joseph and Mary traveled there to comply with an order by the Roman emperor that all citizens go to their place of lineage to be registered for a census; Joseph was a direct descendant of David.