Last week’s decision by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) to designate the Church of the Nativity as a world heritage site was rightly opposed by the United States because it was seen as merely a ploy to boost the Palestinian Authority’s bid for statehood. UNESCO was the only UN agency to recognize the PA as an independent state, and this announcement was merely a jab at Israel as part of a campaign to falsely claim the Jewish state is endangering the future of the shrine as well as the Christian population in the West Bank.
But if UNESCO and those who applauded the decision were truly interested in the well-being of Palestinian Christians, they would have recognized that not only has the PA been the one desecrating the Church of the Nativity, but it has been assisting the efforts to transform Bethlehem from a traditional stronghold of Christianity into one where Christians no longer have a future.
The manipulation of the Church by the Palestinians and their friends in the UN bureaucracy is shameful. By putting the place Christians venerate as the birthplace of Jesus on the list of places that are “World Heritage in Danger,” the Arabs may have thought they were embarrassing Israel. But, they are just drawing attention to the fact that it was the PA that used the sacred site as a hideout for terrorist murderers in 2002 when Israel sought to arrest those involved in a number of vicious attacks on Jewish targets during the second intifada. Out of respect for the Church, Israel agreed to let those criminals inside the church avoid prosecution so as to avoid bloodshed or possible damage.
The current state of the Church, which is suffering from water leaks, is the result of the mismanagement of the area by the PA, not Israel. But far more important is the fact that under the PA’s administration, Christians have been pushed out of the city as Islamist factions started to throw their weight around. Christians have been fleeing Bethlehem for a better life elsewhere for the past 19 years since the Oslo Accords. The same is true of the rest of the West Bank.
Palestinian Christians know better than to criticize Muslim authorities for their problems, as doing so puts them in great danger. So they too join the chorus blaming Israel, but the reality is that as Hamas and other extremist factions gain greater influence and Fatah seeks to compete with them to maintain its popularity, Palestinian society has become an even more hostile place for religious minorities.
While the Church of the Nativity is worthy of the World Heritage site designation, those who are interested in preserving it and the community who has long lived in its shadow should not be playing into the hands of those who are driving Christians out of the country.