When entering Bethlehem’s Church of the Nativity now, only three weeks before Christmas, pilgrims and tourists find the church’s wooden roof, windows and walls hidden behind scaffoldings and tarpaulin. The reason behind all this is an ambitious restoration project by the Palestinian Authority and several European countries that has just been rolled out.
The church, built above the site believed in Christian tradition to be Jesus’ birthplace, is among the holiest sites in Christianity and an important destination for about 2 million tourists every year. The renovation is expected to take several years and to cost about 17 million euros, according to Ziad al-Bandak, PA President Mahmoud Abbas’ adviser for Christian affairs. “This is the first comprehensive restoration project at the church since it was completed in the fourth century,” he said. Having withstood the ravages of time for so long, the roof, pillars and mosaics now all desperately need an overhaul. “Rain leaking in has caused great damage to those integral parts of the building, which led us to move quickly to repair the damage,” Bandak said.
The project is divided into four stages, each expected to take a year of work. First comes the restoration of the church’s roof and windows, a task the Italian company Piacentini Spa took over. “For us this is a special and emotional job at a very special place,” says technical manager Marcello Piacentini.
The company even imported tons of wood from an area close to Venice. “For the restoration we want to use exactly the same kind of wood that was used 500 years ago to construct the roof of the church. But today there is no longer such material in Palestine so we had to bring it,” said Piancentini.
Fifty percent of this restoration phase’s cost, estimated at about 2 million euros, will be covered by Palestinian private funds and sponsors. The rest will be paid for by countries such as Hungary, France, Russia, the Vatican and Greece. On the construction site Italians and Palestinians work together mainly during the night when the church is empty, in an attempt to avoid disturbing visitors.
On the night shift
“We came all the way from Nigeria to pray at the birthplace of our lord Jesus Christ,” says David Olukoya, one of a group of pilgrims from Africa. “I am very touched by this place. The construction work doesn’t disturb me at all. Quite the contrary, it is great that they try to preserve this site.”
The fortress-like church was originally constructed in 399 CE above a cave Christianity views as the birthplace of Jesus, and rebuilt after a fire in the 6th century. In April 2002, the church attracted Israeli media attention when about 220 Palestinians, among them dozens of armed men, took refuge in the church, which resulted a five-week siege by the Israeli army.
The condition of the building, which has suffered extensive earthquake damage in its history, has been a concern for decades. But the administration of the church, which is shared between three religious authorities - the Greek Orthodox, Armenian and Roman Catholic churches - have been unable to reach an agreement for many years. The depth of the tensions between the groups was illustrated by a violent incident in December 2011: During cleaning time, a row broke out among 100 Greek Orthodox and Armenian clerics, with each side accusing the other of intruding on its designated part of the church. The clergymen even hit each other with brooms, and only police intervention stopped them.