Seamans: Christmas 2010

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(HOST)  This holiday season, commentator Bill Seamans is thinking about one of the most historic sites in the Holy Land.  

(SEAMANS) In Bethlehem, the Christmas celebration traditionally climaxes with the midnight mass in the Catholic chapel adjacent to the Church of the Nativity – televised worldwide to multi-millions of celebrants.  Lucky it happens in the Catholic chapel because the rafters holding up the roof of the Church are so eroded by leaking rainwater that their strength is becoming questionable.

The church that was built over the cave where Jesus is said to have been born has deteriorated so much that is needs a complete restoration – and finally after 1,500 years authorities have decided that it’s time.  But first the roof.

When I was based in Israel as the ABC News Bureau Chief one of my favorite visits was to the Church – and I saw with considerable concern rainwater leaking through the roof – drip, drip, dripping down on the beautiful, irreplaceable floor mosaics and frescoes – and sometimes on the heads of the monks and pilgrims.  And worse,  nothing was being done about it.  Why?  Because under a 19th-century Ottoman agreement the upkeep was split between the Greek Orthodox, Armenian and Roman Catholic churches which have been squabbling for years to protect their turf inside the church – and hardly anything gets fixed, even the leaky roof.  Most of my visits were during the Israeli occupation and they were so concerned about the erosion of the exquisite art forms that they offered to help but could not get an okay from the ruling religious triumvirate – none wanted the responsibility of inviting the Israelis to invade the sovereign territory of their church even though it was known that they discretely would welcome the repairs.

The hardly known story is that the Israelis organized a clandestine mission calling up reservists who were roofing experts.  In the darkness of overnight hours they put aside their Uzzi submachine guns and armed with ladders and tools slipped up to the roof and band-aided the leaks.  Local nightpeople passing by wisely said they didn’t see anything unusual.

When the Palestinians gained control of Bethlehem the drip, drip, dripping resumed.  Then the World Monuments Fund added the decaying church to its list of the world’s 100 most endangered historic sites and warned that the leaks were threatening the building.  The Palestinian authority tried to get the Greeks, Armenians and Roman Catholics to work on a plan to save the church but found it impossible to pull them together.  So the Palestinians on their own hired experts who estimated that it would cost about $300,000 to plug the leaks and the full restoration to save the church would, they said, "cost hundreds of millions of dollars."

And so it would seem that a visit from modern-day Wise Men – Christmas checks in hand – would be welcome in Bethlehem.

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