Bethlehem, Occupied West Bank – This Christmas season, pilgrims and visitors to Bethlehem were surprised to see scaffolds inside the Church of the Nativity, Jesus’ biblical birthplace, as urgent renovations to the historical site began after years of delays.
The windows and roof of the centuries-old site, revered by millions around the world, are finally being repaired after deferrals caused by squabbling between feuding Christian denominations and a lack of funds. The repairs are part of the first phase of a renovations project being undertaken by the Palestinian Authority (PA).
“Since the Ottoman empire, the British Mandate, the Jordanian presence and the Israeli occupation there has not been a comprehensive renovation of the church,” said Ziad al-Bandak, PA President Mahmoud Abbas’ advisor on Christian affairs. The first site of religious significance to undergo a similar restoration was the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem.
The project includes servicing water-damaged windows and a leaky roof, which have been causing the walls of the church to rot and disintegrate. The hole-ridden wood and roof is of particular concern. During the rainy season water seeps through, causing further damage to the frescoes and mosaics inside.
The iconic church, first built in the 4th century, has been subject to natural and human-made disasters. During the second Intifada in 2002, Israeli forces shelled the church where Palestinian fighters, civilians, nuns and priests sought refuge.
“You are talking about a church that was built around 1,700 years,” Bandak said. “It witnessed many wars, many changes, earthquakes, weather [conditions].”
Divisions and delays
Restoration plans have been discussed for years, but disagreements among different sects that share control of the church – Armenians, Franciscans and Greek Orthodox – are one reason why it took so long for the process to actually commence. Because of inter-religious disagreements, the PA took over the task to repair the church, putting out a worldwide plea for funds.
Since the Ottoman empire, the British Mandate, the Jordanian presence and the Israeli occupation there has not been a comprehensive renovation of the church.
“We approached the three churches to get an agreement from them about the renovations, but they told us it was impossible to reach [a consensus] among them, and that we have their blessing if we interfere,” Bandak said, pointing to dark streaks stretching all the way from the windows down to the floors of the Armenian section of the church.
The renovation, currently undertaken by an Italian company, is expected to end by September 2014. In addition to repairing – and in some cases replacing – roof beams using wood exported form Italy – and adding a new layer of lead sheets, renovations will include fixing the drainage system.
Some funds will be used to excavate some of the mosaics, which are still intact and covered in plaster to protect them over the years. Work will also be done to the interior, including columns and floors.
The renovation process, which was formally announced by a presidential decree in 2009, began with a million dollar fund by the PA with the Palestinian private sector, including banks and companies, giving a further $800,000. Donations were also made by Hungary, France, the Vatican, Greece and Russia with more donations exepected from Italy and other donors.
However, even with international funding, it has still fallen short of the amount needed for extensive renovations.
“Because of lack of funds, we could not go for the renovation of the whole church,” Bandak said. “The assessment done through international consultants in 2009-2010 [estimated] that we need around 15 million euros [$20m] [to renovate] the entire church.”
So far, the PA has been able to secure only 2.5 million euros ($3.42m) and is calling on countries to send donations to a special fund.
In 2002, the church was inscribed on UNESCO’s World Heritage List, an effort that PA Minister of Tourism Rula Ma’aya said had paid off. “The recognition by the UNESCO [of the Church of the Nativity as a World Heritage Site] is helping with funds for the renovation.”
Inclusion into the World Hertiage List has also boosted the number of tourists coming to Bethlehem. According to Ma’aya, there was a 14 percent increase in the number of visitors coming to Bethlehem, and a five percent jump in the number of those spending at least one night at a local hotel.
“The real jump was last year after the Church of the Nativity was inscribed in the World Heritage List,” she said. That year, there was an 18 percent increase in the number of tourists.
Palestinians are hoping the church renovations will eventually lead to a more thriving economy, but have no illusions about how difficult a feat that may be. Bethlehem is severed from its historical twin city – Jerusalem – which provided sustenance to the birthplace of Jesus through pilgrimage and tourism.
Today, there are more than 20 Israeli settlements and 32 physical barriers – including Israeli military checkpoints and gates – in and around the Bethlehem district. The area is further hemmed in by the separation barrier, all of which have meant only about 13 percent of Bethlehem district’s land is available for Palestinian use.
“This country has potential and can attract people from all over the world,” Ma’aya said. “But with [Israel’s] occupation, we cannot improve this sector the way we want … We cannot have sustainable development for the sector.
“Hundreds of the archaeological sites are in Area C,” she added, referring to about 60 percent of the West Bank under Israeli control. “[That’s where] the most important potential for investment [is]; the areas around the Dead Sea. We cannot access [these areas] nor is our tourist police [allowed] go to these places.”
Israel also controls the borders, which means often pilgrims are brought to Bethlehem for a few hours by Israeli operators who, unlike their Palestinian counterparts, can access Jerusalem and Israel. They come to the church, buy a souvenir and hop on the bus, according to Fayrouz Khoury, deputy general director of the Bethlehem Chamber of Commerce.
“The only thing that they leave for us are the empty water bottles.”
Follow Dalia Hatuqa on Twitter: @daliahatuqa