BETHLEEM, West Bank – When the restoration of the wooden beams and leaking roof of the Church of the Nativity began in 2013 with the blessing of the Three Guard Churches, everyone involved was aware of the historical significance of the Church of the Nativity. business. It was the first time in 540 years that repair work had been done on the church at the site where Jesus was born.
But what the team of workers – including local Palestinian committees and international restoration engineers and experts – did not know was the real impact of the initial ecumenical cooperation.
Historically, the Franciscans, Greeks Orthodox and Armenians have jealously guarded their rights in the church, under the standstill agreement of 1852 which regulates the ownership of spaces in various holy places as well as the times and duration of religious liturgies. As recently as 2011, Greek Orthodox and Armenian monks fought for the rights to clean up a certain area of the church.
But with the roof leak endangering the old structure, all agreed to undertake the necessary work.
And a new era has begun.
“Along the way, the three churches noticed the good results that came from the cooperation and that it would be good to continue,” said Khouloud Daibes, the new executive director of the Bethlehem Development Foundation, which has raised 2.6 million dollars. dollars of the $ 15 million needed to restore the entire church.
“At first it was just supposed to be the roof, but then we just kept doing a lot, a lot more,” she said.
The project required coordination involving more than 400 specialists and the need to maintain the liturgical calendar and keep the doors open for pilgrims, she said.
Imad Nasser, engineer and technical representative of the Palestinian Presidential Committee for the Restoration of the Church of the Nativity, said security requirements for visitors were difficult as the church remained open throughout the restoration process.
After a process of extensive study and negotiations, the project gradually evolved into a more comprehensive undertaking and included the restoration of frescoes and wall and floor mosaics from the Crusader era, which had been blunted by centuries of burning pilgrims. candles and incense smoke; restoration of exterior facades; and restoration of the 50 marble columns inside the church, each dedicated to a different saint.
Franciscan Father Ibrahim Faltas, representing the Custody of the Holy Land, said: “This project has brought the three church leaders closer together and improved relationships. In fact, the three church leaders have agreed to implement rehabilitation work at the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem. We hope that this cooperation will continue in the future.
Claudette Habesch, Presidential Committee for Restoration, said the ability of churches to come together for a common goal of restoring and protecting the church is not only a symbol of hope for Christianity, but should be a message to all the peoples of the Holy Land. She said this was in line with Pope Francis’ 2020 social encyclical “Fratelli Tutti,” which urges people to act as neighbors for the common good, rejecting the creation of a society of exclusion.
“It’s a great achievement. It goes beyond physical achievement… not just for Christians but for everyone who lives here,” Habesch said. “It gives us hope that we can also work for reconciliation and peace in this country.”
Dependent mainly on donations from foreign supporters, the restoration project was carried out in several phases, with the COVID-19 epidemic considerably reducing the amount of funds available and slowing down the works.
The remaining works include a firefighting system, a micro-climate system and the restoration of the cave itself.
Mazen Karam, outgoing CEO of the Bethlehem Development Foundation, said if all the necessary funding is secured immediately, the entire project will be completed around 2023.
The project also encouraged the three churches to undertake restoration work on their own private sections of the church, he said, and so most of the entire complex has been restored.
Currently, on the initiative of the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate of Jerusalem, two art curators are working on the iconostasis of the Greek Orthodox Chapel, a wall of icons and religious paintings that separates the main part of the chapel from the sanctuary.
“It’s a privilege to work here and watch the three different churches pray in one place. It’s not an experience I could have anywhere else,” said art restorer Zacharias Zacharoudis.
While most pilgrims cannot yet come to Bethlehem, a traveling exhibition of the restoration project opened at the Vatican Museums in 2019 and is currently on display in Cologne, Germany.