SAINT PETERSBURG - Agence France-Presse
The UN cultural body UNESCO overrode Israeli objections Friday to urgently grant world heritage status to a church in the Palestinian city of Bethlehem worshipped as the birthplace of Jesus.
UNESCO's 13-6 secret vote to add the Church of the Nativity and its pilgrimage route to the prestigious list was received with a round of rousing applause and a celebratory fist pump by the beaming head of the Palestinian delegation at the meeting in Russia's second city of Saint Petersburg.
"These sites are threatened with total destruction through the Israeli occupation, through the building of the separation wall, because of all the Israeli sanctions and the measures that have been taken to stifle the Palestinian identity," the Palestinian delegate said after the vote.
The Israeli delegate said the Jewish state supported awarding world heritage status to the ancient church under a completely different procedure that carried no implications for the Middle East peace process.
"The decision taken now was totally political and does great damage in our opinion to the (UN) convention and its image," the delegate said.
The bid, the first since the Palestinians won controversial membership of UNESCO in October 2011, was submitted "on an emergency basis" because the Palestinians say urgent restoration work is needed.
Their membership has cost the body tens of millions of dollars in lost funding from the United States, Israel's staunchest ally.
Israel said the "emergency basis" status essentially meant that the United Nations as a world body was backing the Palestinian view that the church was threatened by the Jewish state's troops.
It had proposed co-sponsoring the church's application at a future date -- an idea whose prospects seem remote amid a continuing stalemate in the grueling Middle East peace process.
The Catholic, Greek Orthodox
and Armenian Churches for their part have only given lukewarm approval to the idea because of the dangers the move potentially poses to their own rights to the shrine.
The Palestinian bid had faced serious hurdles, including the continued opposition from the United States and Israel, a negative report from the body that evaluates sites for UNESCO and, reportedly, domestic disagreements.