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