7th July, 2012
PROTECTED: Inside the Nave, Church of the Nativity, Bethlehem, Palestine. PICTURE: Gary Hardman/www.sxc.hu
The ancient basilica on the site of Jesus' birth, visited by more than two million people each year, has been given world heritage status by UNESCO.
The Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, built over the cave venerated as Christ's birthplace, is the oldest complete church in the Christian world.
Built in the 6th century, it replaced an earlier church built by the Roman emperor Constantine and dedicated in the year 339.
UNESCO, the educational, scientific and cultural agency of the United Nations, accords world heritage status to sites considered to be "of outstanding value to humanity".
UNESCO also granted the site endangered status and funding for repairs - despite strong objections from the United States and Israel.
Bethlehem is in the Israeli-occupied West Bank, where the Palestinian Authority exercises limited self-rule. Israel saw the Palestinian move to gain world heritage status for the Church of the Nativity as an effort to embarrass Israel on the world stage.
Last year, UNESCO granted the Palestinians full membership, a decision seen at the time as boosting their efforts, since largely stalled, to win statehood recognition from the United Nations.
The Palestinian Authority's request included part of the Pilgrimage Route, the path which tradition says Joseph and Mary took to the city on their journey from Nazareth 2,000 years ago.
The Palestinian government plans to register about 20 more sites with UNESCO, including the ancient city of Jericho and the archaeological site of Sebastiya - a traditional location for the burial of John the Baptist.
The Church of the Nativity is almost wholly a Greek Orthodox place of worship. Armenian Orthodox and Roman Catholics (known as Latins in the Holy Land) have rights to some areas.
- PAT McCARTHY, Assist News Service