JERUSALEM — The United Nations cultural agency (UNESCO) has made a controversial decision on one of Christianity's holiest sites, winning praise from the Palestinians and infuriating Israel. UNESCO has approved a Palestinian request to declare the Church of the Nativity in the West Bank town of Bethlehem an endangered World Heritage Site. The Palestinians have limited self-rule in Bethlehem, but they say that the Israeli occupation is preventing urgent repairs at the traditional birthplace of Jesus.
Palestinian legislator Hanan Ashrawi praised UNESCO's decision, saying it is an affirmation of Palestinian sovereignty.
"I hope that not just the Church of Nativity, but also other historical sites in Palestine will be recognized for what they are," said Ashrawi.
Last year, UNESCO granted the Palestinians full membership despite opposition from Israel. Israeli government spokesman Yigal Palmor says now, the Palestinians are using the U.N. cultural agency to bring false charges against the Jewish state and to tarnish its image abroad.
"We have warned time and again that the premature recognition of Palestine by UNESCO would only lead to the hijacking of UNESCO's activities into the politicized sphere, where the Palestinian propaganda machine wants to take it. And now we see this is precisely what is happening," said Palmor.
The United States, which voted against the resolution, said the Christian holy places should not fall victim to Mideast politics.
Palestinian residents of Bethlehem, like Maher Kanawati, believe UNESCO recognition will boost tourism and the city's economy.
"We will be very happy to be listed as the historical World Heritage with the UNESCO. And we hope that this will give a big message to the entire world that there is peace here and to encourage all people from all around the world to come and visit this holy town," said Kanawati.
Some 2 million people have visited the Church of the Nativity annually in recent years thanks to a lull in West Bank violence. Israel says this is further proof that Palestinian charges of an endangered World Heritage Site are a fabrication.