UN move threatens Church of the Nativity

Cheryl Halpern Council Member, U.S. Holocaust Memorial and Museum
Font Size:

Christianity teaches that the birth of Jesus, which is thought to have occurred at the site where Bethlehem’s Church of the Nativity now stands, heralded a new age for mankind and the coming of the Messiah. The preservation of this site is therefore critical to every Christian. However, the future of the church is now at risk.

That’s because the responsibility for the caretaking of this site has now been entrusted to the Fatah-dominated Palestinian Authority, which has not proven itself worthy of such responsibility. Fatah has been, since its founding in 1964, complicit in the harassment, persecution, assassination, imprisonment and expulsion of Christians from Palestine. In fact, it was Fatah gunmen who commandeered the church, held monks hostage within its walls and wired it with explosives in 2002 during a standoff with the Israel Defense Forces. Where was the respect for this holy site then? Who can guarantee that respect exists today? The international community has turned to the United Nations and specifically to UNESCO.

Unfortunately, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) is a highly politicized organization dominated by its own agenda. Its recognition of Palestine as a member-state, even though the Palestinians lack such recognition in virtually every other international organization of repute, underscores this point.

Last month, UNESCO decided to go even further, and voted to include the Church of the Nativity on the list of World Heritage in Danger sites and to place it under the internationally sanctioned administration of the Palestinian Authority (PA).

This decision by UNESCO is provocative and unsettling. Stewardship of a religiously important site requires the caretaker to have a demonstrated record of tolerance and respect for the free expression and practice of faith. This can be a very difficult benchmark for nations to achieve, particularly in most of the Muslim world.

Unfortunately, the PA has not demonstrated ecumenical tolerance of Jews or Christians. Palestinian rioters desecrated the Tomb of Joseph after it came under Palestinian control. Around-the-clock supervision by the Israel Defense Forces is required to prevent a similar occurrence at the Tomb of the Patriarchs in Hebron. And it’s not only holy sites that are under attack. Revisionists are threatening religious history itself. The PA’s mufti, Sheikh Muhammad Hussein, has declared on Palestinian television that Jesus, whose birth predates the Quran by six centuries, was a Muslim prophet and a Palestinian.

Meanwhile, Arab Christians — who have lived in the region since the time of Jesus himself — are routinely harassed in the Palestinian areas. They increasingly seek to leave the area, fearing what might happen to them under an Islamist-dominated government.

Their concern is not misplaced. Christian minorities are frequently persecuted throughout the Muslim world. In May, a mob of Indonesian Muslims threw bags of stones, rotten eggs and urine at a Protestant congregation. In Zanzibar, several hundred Muslims set fire to two churches. In Macedonia, thousands of Muslims demonstrated after Friday prayers, exclaiming, “Death to Christians.” As if in response to those cries, just a few weeks ago, 24 Nigerian Christians were killed, and over 100 more were injured, in three bombings that officials believed were the work of a militant Islamist group. The list goes on and on.

Sadly, UNESCO’s vote shows no understanding of this reality. Regardless of their views on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Christians together with all other believers in the freedom to worship must protest UNESCO’s irresponsibility. The opposition voiced by the Greek Orthodox, the Armenian and the Roman Catholic Churches, three of the denominations with custodial responsibility for the Church of the Nativity, was to no avail.

Although America opposed entrusting the PA with custodial authority, nonetheless the Obama administration has recently attempted to restore U.S. taxpayer funding of UNESCO. Thankfully, a bipartisan congressional group has been a bulwark against the administration’s misguided effort.

Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-FL), chairwoman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, has opposed the State Department’s move to restore UNSECO funding. Democratic Reps. Brad Sherman, Eliot Engel, Carolyn McCarthy and Steve Israel as well as Republican Reps. Allen West, Steve Chabot, Robert Dold and Ann Marie Buerkle have joined her. They deserve our support.

Once a site of religious, cultural or historical importance is destroyed, it is lost forever. Today, UNESCO finds itself powerless to stop the destruction of World Heritage sites by Islamist terrorists in Timbuktu. For UNESCO to empower an “authority” without moral qualms about desecrating such sites is the height of irresponsibility.

Cheryl Halpern, the former chair of the Republican Jewish Coalition and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, is a council member at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial and Museum, and chair of the Queen of Sheba Foundation.