BETHLEHEM (Ma'an) — UNESCO on Friday declared Bethlehem's Church of the Nativity and the nearby pilgrimage route World Heritage sites.
Thirteen members of the 21-nation World Heritage Committee voted in favor of the Palestinian application, securing exactly the needed number of votes. Two countries abstained and six voted against the bid.
"I am delighted," Palestinian Authority Foreign Minister Riyad al-Malki told the conference in St. Petersburg, to rapturous applause. "You have our most gracious thanks."
He applauded the committee for granting Palestinians their cultural rights and pledged Palestine's commitment to protecting world heritage.
Palestine is the "cradle of human civilization" he said, adding that it will submit further nominations to secure world heritage status for villages south of Jerusalem whose identities are threatened by Israel's wall.
Talking to Ma'an after the vote, al-Malki said Bethlehem's new status ensured its protection from Israel and that the success of the bid was "a huge Palestinian achievement."
In Bethlehem, deputy mayor George Saade thanked all the countries that voted in support of the bid.
"We feel that this is justice and we are very happy about this. Everybody is happy in Bethlehem and Palestine," he told Ma'an.
PLO leader Hanan Ashrawi welcomed the decision as a moment of "national pride."
"The Palestinian people are celebrating this decision as a moment of national pride and affirmation of their rich and unique heritage and identity," she said in a statement after the vote.
"It is a welcome recognition by the international community of our historical and cultural rights in this land and our commitment to the protection and preservation of such significant Palestinian cultural and religious sites in spite of the Israeli occupation and all its prejudicial measures."
Palestine's nomination of the sites, under a single application titled "Birthplace of Jesus: Church of the Nativity and the Pilgrimage Route," included the church and three surrounding monasteries in addition to the route.
The application stressed that the nomination was only the first in a series of nominations to inscribe all sites in Bethlehem related to the story of the birth of Jesus into the UNESCO world heritage list.
The UNESCO list is intended to recognize and protect world cultural and natural heritage sites that meet a "universal value to humanity." Some 900 sites have been registered since the list was introduced in 1972.