Church re­vival

Dam­aged struc­tural beams and a leaky roof threat­ens an an­cient re­li­gious site.

The Star Malaysia - Star2 - - LIVING - By DANIELA BER­RETTA

AS visi­tors de­scend upon Beth­le­hem this hol­i­day sea­son, they will no­tice a dif­fer­ent look for the Church of the Na­tiv­ity on the West Bank. Wrapped in scaf­fold­ing, the basil­ica lo­cated at the tra­di­tional site of the birth of Je­sus Christ is un­der­go­ing a much­needed facelift af­ter 600 years.

Ex­perts say that wa­ter is leak­ing from the rooftop and threat­ens to cause se­ri­ous dam­age to mo­saics and other price­less items.

“The wa­ter has a bad ef­fect on the plas­ter­ing sur­faces, on the mo­saics, on the floors, on the fres­coes. It could dam­age many his­tor­i­cal el­e­ments in­side the church,” said project man­ager Afif Tweme, who works for the Com­mu­nity De­vel­op­ment Group, a Pales­tinian engineering con­sult­ing firm.

The church is one of Chris­tian­ity’s most vis­ited and sa­cred shrines. Stand­ing above the grotto where, ac­cord­ing to tra­di­tion, Je­sus Christ was born, the church at­tracted more than two mil­lion visi­tors last year. But the build­ing, with rem­nants up to 1,500 years old, has been ne­glected for decades. Both the World Mon­u­ments Fund, a US-based non­profit group ded­i­cated to pro­tect­ing his­toric sites, and the UN cul­tural agency Unesco have placed the church on their lists of en­dan­gered sites. And a high-tech sur­vey by a con­sor­tium of Ital­ian ex­perts in 2011 called for ur­gent re­pairs.

The city of Beth­le­hem is sit­u­ated in a part of the West Bank where the Pales­tini­ans have self-rule. The Western-backed Pales­tinian Au­thor­ity has taken the lead and is fi­nanc­ing a great por­tion of the works, said Ziad al-Ban­dak, an ad­viser on Chris­tian af­fairs to Pales­tinian Pres­i­dent Mah­moud Ab­bas.

He said the gov­ern­ment has pro­vided US$1mil (RM3.256mil), while an ad­di­tional US$800,000 (RM2.6mil) is com­ing from the pri­vate sec­tor. The rest is com­ing from Euro­pean coun­tries such as France, Greece, Hun­gary and Rus­sia, con­tribut­ing to the roughly US$3mil (RM9.772mil) in to­tal needed for the first phase, al-Ban­dak said.

Be­yond the painstak­ing process of pre­serv- ing a del­i­cate holy site, the work has been com­pli­cated by the sen­si­tive re­la­tions among the three Chris­tian de­nom­i­na­tions that share own­er­ship of the church.

The Ro­man Catholic, Greek Or­tho­dox and Ar­me­nian churches have tra­di­tion­ally viewed each other with deep sus­pi­cion. They run the Na­tiv­ity Church ac­cord­ing to a 19th cen­tury codex, known as the Sta­tus Quo, which as­signs re­spon­si­bil­i­ties for up­keep that are jeal­ously guarded by each de­nom­i­na­tion. Re­la­tions are so fraught that turf bat­tles have oc­ca­sion­ally es­ca­lated into fist fights be­tween cler­gy­men.

A se­nior church of­fi­cial (speak­ing on con­di­tion of anonymity) said the three de­nom­i­na­tions would never have been able to reach an agree­ment on their own. But once the Pales­tinian Au­thor­ity stepped in, all three churches ac­cepted the de­ci­sion.

The first phase, ex­pected to last one year, is be­ing car­ried out by Pi­a­centi, an Ital­ian firm that spe­cialises in the ren­o­va­tion of his­tor­i­cal sites. One by one, ex­perts will re­pair the hun­dreds of wooden beams in the roof.

Com­pany pres­i­dent Giammarco Pi­a­centi said the rooftop was mas­ter­fully re­stored by Vene­tian car­pen­ters in 1478. He said the project would be con­ser­va­tive and seek to keep as many orig­i­nal pieces as pos­si­ble.

“We’ll save as many parts, even those in bad con­di­tions, as we can,” he said. “We’ll only re­place pieces that are no longer func­tional and can no longer help hold the roof. They will be as few as pos­si­ble and will be made of a com­pat­i­ble wood, of aged wood of the same type and qual­ity.”

The church was built in the 4th cen­tury by Saint He­lena over a cave where the Vir­gin Mary is said to have given birth. What pil­grims mostly see to­day is the basil­ica church built by Byzan­tine Em­peror Jus­tinian I, who ruled from 527CE to 565CE.

In spite of large scaf­fold­ing lin­ing the sides of the nave near the en­trance, visi­tors don’t seem to mind, at least for the mo­ment. Sis­ter Aziza, an Eritrean nun who lives in Is­rael, wel­comed what she says is much-needed re­pair.

“I’m very grate­ful and happy that they’re ren­o­vat­ing it. Oth­er­wise it will fall,” she said. “And it will be safer for peo­ple and also to wor­ship. It is a nice step that they agreed to ren­o­vate it, be­cause for so many years I’ve been wait­ing for this ren­o­va­tion.” – AP

Restora­tion: The church of the Na­tiv­ity wrapped in scaf­fold­ing for a much-needed facelift. — aP pho­tos

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