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Middle East Politics May Result in Much Needed Repairs for Church of the Nativity

A Palestinian government anxious to prove to the world that it can maintain historic sites of international importance is in the process of brokering a deal between three different Christian groups whose infighting has prevented much-needed renovations to one of the Holy Land's most beloved sites - the Church of the Nativity.

The Associated Press is reporting that the Palestinian Authority (PA) and its president, Mahmoud Abbas, are attempting to serve as a mediator between Catholics, Greek Orthodox and Armenians who have been feuding for centuries over who will undertake repairs to the rapidly deteriorating basilica. According to accepted practice, a group owns whatever they repair in a building, and none of the sects are willing to allow the other to possess more of the historic church than they do.

"If you repair the roof, under Ottoman law, you own the structure," Raymond Cohen, author on a book about renovations at Church of the Holy Sepulchre, told The Independent. "In the pub, you want somebody else to buy the round. In the Church of the Nativity, it's the opposite. Everyone wants to pay."

Unfortunately, this standoff has prevented much needed repairs to the basilica for more than a century.

Of greatest concern is the roof, which contains beams erected during construction of the basilica in the 6th century by Byzantine emperor Justinian, who built the church to replace the original building that marked the spot where Jesus is believed to have been born.  Some of these wooden beams are visibly rotting which poses a risk to visitors and has allowed leaks that have already ruined many of the church's priceless mosaics and paintings.

The repairs are expected to cost anywhere from $10 to $15 million.

It is hoped that the intervention of the PA will circumvent the squabbling factions and allow the renovations to move forward in 2012. Thus far, it looks hopeful.

"We recognize that this is a necessity that goes beyond our different claims, and that this has to be done," said Father Athanasius, the Roman Catholic clergyman in charge of relations with other sects at shared sites in the Holy Land.

Archbishop Aris Shirvanian of the Armenian Patriarchate of Jerusalem said his church supported the plan, along with the other churches.

The Greek Orthodox did not respond to AP requests for comment.

Because the site is a major tourist attraction which brings more than two million visitors a year to the Holy Land, the PA is eager to win recognition of the basilica from UNESCO as a world heritage site. Its earlier application was turned down only because the PA was not considered a state until last month when a controversial vote resulted in UNESCO's recognition. The PA is now hoping their application will be approved.

They admit that their desire to renovate the site is motivated, at least in part, by a desire to prove to the world that they can be responsible stewards of sites of global importance.

"Our president has issued a decree to restore the roof and to prepare for the restoration of the church on behalf of the three churches and in coordination with the three churches, which obviously cannot do it on their own," said Khouloud Daibes, the Palestinian tourism minister.

Whatever the reason for their involvement, the intervention of the PA is allowing the feuding parties to save face and get started on repairs to the 1,500 year-old building that some say should have been undertaken centuries ago.

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