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Palestinians in last push for UN nod for Bethlehem

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BETHLEHEM, West Bank — The Palestinians on Wednesday made a final push to have UNESCO recognize the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem in the Israeli-controlled West Bank as an endangered World Heritage site, despite misgivings by Christian denominations and a cool response from the U.N. agency.

The Palestinians acknowledge a political component to their bid, saying UNESCO recognition of the centuries-old basilica, built over Jesus' traditional birth grotto in the biblical town, is also a vote for an independent Palestine. Israel says the Palestinians — by claiming one of Christianity's holiest sites is threatened by Israel's occupation of the West Bank — are bashing the Jewish state.

A decision is expected in days at a meeting by a UNESCO committee in St. Petersburg, Russia. Two Palestinian officials said they count on support of at least 10 of 21 countries represented, and hope for a win if enough members abstain.

The World Heritage campaign is part of a Palestinian drive to win international recognition, as attempts to establish a Palestinian state through negotiations with Israel are frozen. Talks broke down in 2008, and Israeli and Palestinian leaders disagree over ground rules for renewing them.

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas is trying to boost his leverage by seeking world recognition of a state of Palestine in the West Bank, Gaza and east Jerusalem, territories Israel captured in 1967. His quest for U.N. membership has stalled. However, last year, the Palestinians won member state status in UNESCO, over the objections of Israel and the U.S., which withdrew $80 million in annual dues — 22 percent of the overall budget — from the organization.

Abbas' Palestinian Authority, which has partial control in 38 percent of the West Bank, hopes to win World Heritage recognition for 20 sites. Bethlehem, seen as the most promising candidate with its emotional appeal to millions of Christians worldwide, was submitted first.

The nomination process takes about 18 months, but the Palestinian Authority fast-tracked the nomination of the Church of the Nativity and the ancient pilgrimage route leading to it by declaring them endangered. A UNESCO experts committee has dismissed the claim of an imminent threat and suggested the Palestinians go the regular route, but the Palestinians refused.

On Wednesday, Palestinian officials took journalists on a tour of the church, adjacent Manger Square and the pilgrimage route along Star Street to make the case for urgent U.N. protection.

They argued that the area was damaged by Israel in the past, including during Israel's 2002 reoccupation of the West Bank when tanks rumbled through Bethlehem's alleys, part of a crackdown on Palestinian militants involved in attacks on Israelis. At that time, Israeli soldiers surrounded the church for more than a month in a standoff with Palestinian gunmen holed up inside.

Since then, Israel has also built a separation barrier — it claims to keep out militants, while the Palestinians say it is a land grab — and Bethlehem is now blocked on three sides by walls and fences.

The basilica is also in need of restoration, particularly fixing a leaky wooden roof, but the Palestinian Authority has been able to raise only $3 million of $20 million pledged by foreign donors. A nod from UNESCO could help raise the money, but this is not a primary consideration, officials said.

"The city and the Nativity Church are in danger because of the Israeli occupation. It is not only a question of restoration or renovation," said Omar Awadallah, a Palestinian Foreign Ministry official.

Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesman Yigal Palmor said Israel supports the designation of the basilica as a World Heritage site in principle, but he denies the church is endangered.

The Palestinians "tried to politicize the debate by presenting the church as being endangered, which implies Israel is to blame," said Palmor. "The church will be listed in due time ... but UNESCO does not find any justification that the church is in danger, and the Palestinians cannot use this to ram Israel."

Awadallah alleged that Israel and the U.S. lobbied the committee members to reject the bid, which he portrayed as a vote on Palestinian independence.

Debate begins Friday, and a vote is possible by the weekend, Palestinian officials said.

In the run-up, the Palestinian Authority has scrambled to bring on board the Roman Catholic, Armenian and Greek Orthodox churches which share responsibility for the basilica. The three denominations jealously guard their roles as custodians, assigned to the last brick by a document going back to 1852 during Ottoman rule and known as the Status Quo.

The churches fear meddling by the U.N. and the Palestinian Authority if the church gets the World Heritage label, and church officials have expressed their misgivings, to the embarrassment of Palestinian officials.

A PLO official said Wednesday that the goal is to persuade church officials not to express their concerns in public before the vote.

Awadallah and other Palestinian officials denied church leaders were still opposed.

Church officials who expressed their opposition last week could not be reached for fresh comment Wednesday.