Framework of the Nativity in Bethlehem soon to be restored

Monday, 26 August. The Custos of the Holy Land, Fra Pierbattista Pizzaballa, has added his signature alongside those of the Palestinian Prime Minister, Rami Hamdallah, and representatives of the Greek Orthodox and Apostolic Armenian Churches to a document entrusting the restoration of the skeleton and windows of the Basilica of the Nativity of Bethlehem to the Italian company Piacenti.

The official signing, which took place at the presidential palace in Bethlehem, marks the end of a long decision process. The three Churches reached an agreement at the end of 2008, and in 2010, under the auspices of the Palestinian Authority, signed an engagement to undertake preliminary scientific study. The completion of this study allowed a call for bids to be issued, with the contract being awarded to Piacenti, a company based in Prato (Tuscany).

The principal speech during the ceremony was given by Mr. Ziad Al Bandak, President Mahmoud Abbas’s counselor for Christian affairs and chairman of the committee for the renovation of the church. He recalled the importance of the site of the Nativity in history and in the eyes of the Palestinian Authority “which has always been attentive, following the example of President Arafat, to the Christian presence in Palestine.”

For his part, the Custos of the Holy Land, who spoke in the name of the three Churches responsible for the Nativity, cited these joint efforts between the Churches and the political authorities, between Christians and Muslims, as an example. “While the Middle East is on fire, while in one place and another churches burn and mosques are destroyed, we here are doing the opposite. Muslims and Christians are acting together to preserve a historic patrimony, but also a place of faith for millions of believers throughout the world.”

Mr. Ziad Al Bandak in turn underlined that the cost of the work, $2,600,000 US, is more than half covered by Palestinian resources – private funds and sponsorships – while certain countries – Hungary, France, Russia, the Vatican, and Greece – also participate.

The Churches who guarantee the sacred nature of the site “which is not just a national monument,” as Fra Pierbattista said, “but an important site in the daily life of millions of believers around the world,” expressed their full and complete collaboration for the success of the operation.

According to Fra Stephane Milovitch, who is responsible for overseeing the project on behalf of the Franciscans, work should begin in the coming weeks. Piacenti is to allow continued access to the grotto and guarantee the safety of visitors while the work is being carried out.

The project, the first phase of the restoration of the Basilica, consists of restoring the current framework, recovering and sealing it, and completely redoing the Basilica’s windows.

Studies of the roof performed in 2010 by IVALSA (the Institute for the Evaluation of Arboreal Species of the Italian National Research Council, CNR) revealed that five different types of wood constitute the present structure.

The oldest, cedar beams, date from the sixth and seventh centuries, but also present are oak, which does grow in the Middle East, and larch, which is absent from the region. Dendrochronological analysis dates these trees to the beginning of the 15th century, coming from the eastern Italian Alps. This analysis is confirmed by the archives that explain how in the 15th century the Republic of Venice, whose sovereignty then extended to the eastern Alps, had contributed the wood necessary for the restoration of the church. (To learn more about the analyses of the framework, please see an article published in English, French, Italian.)

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After the signature, the Custos of the Holy Land went to Saint Catherine parish church that adjoins the Nativity to view the end of the rearrangement of the choir. With a view to being able to accommodate the largest possible number of faithful in the nave, the altar was moved back and the stalls were placed around the organ console. Final touches were added, and a large celebration could take place that very evening in the church to which the pews had not yet been returned.

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