Israel and the United States lobbied strenuously to defeat a recent vote by the UN Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO)’s World Heritage Committee in St. Petersburg, Russia to name the Church of the Nativity, the birthplace of Jesus, as an endangered heritage site.
However, the 21-member UNESCO world heritage body voted 13 to 6 with two abstentions to approve Palestine’s first request to the international organization as a full member. The Church of the Nativity was declared a UNESCO World Heritage site. The criticism of the vote was intense from the United States and Israel.
The inseparable duo of Israel and the United States cut off funding to UNESCO after the Paris-based UNESCO voted to admit Palestine as a full member state last October. UNESCO lost more than one-fifth of its financial support as a result of Washington’s and Tel Aviv’s action.
Although the St. Petersburg vote was secret, some nations later showed their hands. France admitted that it voted in favor of declaring the Bethlehem church endangered, resulting in the standard charges from Israel’s worldwide lobby that France is historically anti-Semitic with the familiar refrain of Alfred Dreyfus’s name being chanted by the lobby. Dreyfus, a French Jewish army officer, was tried for treason in 1895 and imprisoned on Devil’s Island on the charge that he was a spy for the Germans. Dreyfus’s case became a rallying cause for leading Zionists of the time and he was later exonerated and restored to his military rank.
Joining France to vote for the Palestinian request were Algeria, France, India, Iraq, Malaysia, Mali, Mexico, Qatar, Russia, Senegal, Serbia, South Africa and the United Arab Emirates.
The six nations voting for the Israeli position were Colombia, Ethiopia, Estonia, Germany, Japan, and Switzerland. The two abstentions came from Cambodia and Thailand.
It is well-known that the Vatican and the Greek and Armenian Orthodox churches, which have shared responsibility for Jesus’s birthplace, have long protested against Israel’s land grab of church property in Jerusalem, the West Bank, and in Israel proper. Ironically, it was the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) that rallied its members to support the Palestinian request to protect the Church of the Nativity as an endangered World Heritage site.
The following press release was sent out by the following the UNESCO vote:
The Secretary General of the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) Professor Ekmeleddin Ihsanoglu has welcomed the inclusion of the Church of Nativity in Bethlehem among World Heritage Sites during the meeting of the UNESCO’s World Heritage Committee in St Petersburg, Russia. He described this move as an important achievement for the preservation of heritage and historical sites in Palestine and for their protection against instruments of destruction, which the Israeli occupation practices constitute. The Secretary General extended gratitude to all Member States that voted in favour of the resolution and commended the efforts deployed by OIC Member States in this regard.
The OIC member states that carried the day for Jesus’s birthplace were Algeria, Iraq, Malaysia, Mali, Qatar, Senegal, and the United Arab Emirates. Palestine is a full member state of the OIC.
The UNESCO decision recognized that the birthplace of Jesus was threatened by the presence of Israeli troops, something that the Israelis and their American backers vehemently rejected. Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu has, over the past several years, forged an alliance with Christian evangelicals in the United States, sometimes resulting in heated arguments with orthodox Jewish members of his own Cabinet who are suspicious of the proselytizing engaged in by evangelical Christian missionaries in Israel, particularly among Russian Jewish immigrants. However, Netanyahu has rejected the orthodox rabbis protests. At one point in time during the George W. Bush administration, Netanyahu explicitly told the rabbis that Christian evangelicals represented Bush’s political base and that Bush was a total backer of Israel on all major issues. Therefore, Netanyahu reasoned that he would do nothing to alienate the evangelicals, especially those who are known as “Christian Zionists.”
However, Netanyahu and his Likud Party backers made an explosive pact. On one hand, the Likudniks have curried favor with Christian fundamentalists whose interpretation of the Bible varies greatly from Catholicism, Christian Orthodoxy and Coptic Christianity, Anglicanism, Lutheranism, Calvinism, and other faiths borne from the Protestant Reformation. On the other hand, Likud, which enjoys the support of orthodox Jewish parties like Shas, whose rabbinical leaders mock Jesus as the son of a prostitute and a heretic who was Satan’s spawn, regards Christian holy sites under Israeli occupation as Israel’s business. The anti-Christian rhetoric that emanates from Netanyahu’s political allies has incurred the wrath of established Christian religions that realize that by claiming the final say over the administration of Christian holy places like the Church of the Nativity and other Christian shrines, disregarding Palestine’s role entirely, these sites are in as much danger as Sufi Muslim sites in Timbuktu and Gao in Mali are from Saudi-funded Wahhabist Muslims.
Archbishop Pietro Sambi, the Apostolic Nuncio to the United States and the former Vatican envoy to both Israel and Palestine, who died in the United States from complications resulting from surgery, was known to be a harsh critic of Israel’s grabs at church property in the Holy Land. The Franciscan Order of the Catholic Church also raises funds for churches in the Holy Land every Good Friday, reminding Catholic congregations around the world that the church is under extreme pressure in Palestine and Israel. It is quite clear that, for the Franciscans, the threat to the church is from Israel.
Therefore, it made sense for Palestine to raise the issue of the protection of the Church of the Nativity before UNESCO. Israel now fears that Palestine, acting on behalf of the mainstream Christian faiths, will raise protection issues for other Christian holy sites on the West Bank and in east Jerusalem, as well as for Muslim holy sites, including the Dome of the Rock in east Jerusalem, which sits atop the destroyed Second Jewish Temple, which a number of Zionists and their Christian Zionist allies hope to rebuild as the Third Jewish Temple. The rebuilding of the temple would place the Dome of the Rock and the nearby Al Aqsa mosque, Islam’s third holiest site, in jeopardy.
As for the United States, it was quite instructive that the U.S. ambassador to UNESCO, David Killion, was the point man to strong-arm member delegations to vote against the Palestinian resolution and support Israel. Killion is a former chief aide to two rabidly Zionist chairmen of the U.S. House of Representatives Foreign Affairs Committee, Tom Lantos and Howard Berman.
The nightmare for Netanyahu and his allies are that Palestine will replace Israel as the guarantor of the sanctity and security of the Christian holy places and the knowledge that Israel threatens Christian holy places will gain currency among Christian evangelical sects. Such an eventuality could drive a wedge between sects like the Southern Baptists, Pentecostalists, and other fundamentalist faiths and Israel’s powerful lobby in the United States. Such a development could cost Israel much needed political support in southern and western states. Therefore, Israel and pro-Israelis in the Obama administration, including Killion, Deputy Secretary of State James Steinberg, and Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs Jeffrey Feltman will stop at nothing to prevent UNESCO from being used as a platform from which Palestine and the Vatican can announce that it is Israel that poses the greatest threat to Christian holy places in the West Bank and east Jerusalem.