Squabbling hinders repairs to Bethlehem Nativity Church

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As thousands of Christian pilgrims and tourists visit Bethlehem, the site where it is believed Jesus was born, the local authorities are warning that unless urgent repairs are carried out to the centuries-old Church of the Nativity, they may have to restrict visitor numbers in future.

Visitor numbers are up again this year, as evidenced by yet another group of pilgrims who stoop to enter the Nativity Church through its extraordinarily small front entrance.

First built in the 4th Century, the iconic church has been damaged by wars and natural disasters, but has always been rebuilt.

The place marking the spot where most Christians believe Jesus was born is controlled and jealously protected in an uneasy agreement between three Churches - the Greek Orthodox, the Franciscans and the Armenians.

Frequent in-fighting and disagreements between the various sects is one reason why parts of the centuries-old church are in a state of disrepair.

The 500-year-old lead-and-wooden roof is giving greatest cause for concern.

Qustandi Shomali from Bethlehem University says that local religious politics are standing in the way of critical repairs.

"Water pours in through holes in the roof, affecting not just the structure itself but damaging frescoes and mosaics inside the church," he says.

Tourism fears

With religious leaders unable to agree over who should carry out or pay for the repairs, the Palestinian Authority has now had to step in and take charge of the process.

Ziad Bandak, who advises President Mahmoud Abbas on Christian issues, says the Palestinian Authority gave the religious leaders an ultimatum to agree on how to do the work.

"Unfortunately they couldn't agree, so we're now making an international appeal for donations and plan to begin restoration work some time in the New Year," said Mr Bandak.

Historical disputes between priests notwithstanding, the local municipality would like to see even more visitors spending their dollars to boost the local economy and staying in the town itself.

Nabil Jackman is a local shopkeeper with a prime site on the edge of Manger Square.

He admits that increased tourism this year is good for business, but says that the overall picture is still bleak because of the severe practical restrictions placed on the numbers of visitors who are able to come to Bethlehem throughout the year.

Many here bemoan the absence of a peace deal between Israel and the Palestinians.

In effect, Israel controls access to the holy town, through checkpoints and the huge separation wall that skirts around the edge of Bethlehem, meaning the town's potential may not be realised for some time.