Renovation of Christianity’s holiest site nears completion

Renovation of Christianity’s holiest site nears completion
The Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem. (Wikimedia Commons)
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Updated 05 November 2021

Renovation of Christianity’s holiest site nears completion

Renovation of Christianity’s holiest site nears completion
  • Palestinian Christian Said Khoury’s vision for the iconic Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem is finally coming to fruition  
  • The church, which houses the grotto where Jesus was born more than 2,000 years ago, had not undergone a significant renovation since 1480

CHICAGO: Palestinian Christian Said Khoury was praying at the iconic Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem when drops of water trickled on his head from the roof above.

Maybe it was a signal from God, or just a coincidence as the rains battered the Christian town that day in the Israeli-occupied West Bank, but it moved Khoury to initiate the church renovation. Khoury and his family were evicted from their home in Safad, Palestine during the 1948 war and then fled to Yemen where they built one of the world's largest construction companies.

Khoury approached the Palestinian government, which initially funded the campaign to repair the roof. The church, which houses the grotto where Jesus was born more than 2,000 years ago, was also in desperate need of other upgrades as it had not undergone a significant renovation since 1480.

Thanks to Khoury, who died seven years ago, the renovation of the Church of the Nativity is only a few years away from completion, Mazen Karam, CEO of the Bethlehem Development Foundation — which Khoury founded — told Arab News. 

The BDF continues to supervise Khoury’s vision while working with the presidential commission for the “Restoration of the Church of the Nativity,” which was formed in 2008. The commission’s work did not start until Khoury intervened in 2013.

“The focus of this initiative was launched by the late Said Tawfiq Khoury and (it) was to restore the Church of the Nativity. The last time the church was restored was 500 years ago in 1480. It was left uncared of,” Karam told Arab News.

“A lot has happened. Many earthquakes have caused some damage to the church, while there has been deterioration of the windows, roof, and insulations.”

“But it went dormant for some years until Said Khoury came and rain dropped on top of his head and he was not happy about it,” Karam told Arab News.

“This was common. It needed a visionary to see it and go take this up with the president of the country and tell him that we are not allowed to leave the church to deteriorate like this. President Mahmoud Abbas told Said Khoury we support you fully. Go and do whatever you like, whatever you want to do to restore it to its original glory.”

Karam said the church had many issues. It was deteriorating from so much damage and erosion that it was near collapse. The conflict with Israel also placed restrictions and the Palestine National Authority intervened in 2009 to establish a committee that remained dormant until Khoury stepped in.

The renovation of the church, which was commissioned by Constantine the Great around the year 330, is not only to uplift the spirits of Christians but to protect the church from collapse.

“Some of the wooden tresses that were discovered were almost to zero and about to fall. It was just in time. They were saved in time,” Karam said, noting how close the church was to structural collapse.

“And during that period after the restoration started, they filed for a World Heritage Site. But UNESCO placed it as a World Heritage Site that was endangered, which meant we had to do all the work to remove it from the danger. Now, it was removed two years ago from endangered status after all of the work that has been done by the presidential committee to restore it and we are safe now. But we have to maintain it, too. We have to come up with a way to maintain that work that we have done.”

Karem said Khoury’s focus was always on the church and he visited it many times. Khoury initiated the studies and renovations himself, and also donated more than $500,000 from his personal funds.

Renovating the church was not a simple matter, Karam said, because the church is governed under an agreement adopted in 1879, which gave the three major Christian religions separate jurisdictions over different parts of the church structure.

“The grotto is more intricate and more complicated because of the holiest parts of the church and it has to be done right so as not to cause any friction or changes to the status quo. Every piece of the Church of the Nativity was a problem. Even the light switch was the problem,” Karam said, noting that all three churches — Roman Catholic, Greek Orthodox and Armenian — must come to agreement.

“What we have done so far is 90 percent of the work and what is left is 10 percent of the work. We only fundraise for work that is approved to proceed. So, we have 10 percent of the work that has yet to proceed and it is not yet funded. We are raising funds, about $2 million for the church to be completed. Except for the grotto itself, that will come later.”

The Armenians, Catholics and Greeks have each restored their convents and areas.

“The walls of the church, from the outside, were restored to the original stone as if it was quarried now and constructed now. It is a light colored Jerusalem stone that is original, all around the church, restored to its original beauty,” Karam said.

While erosion and damage has continued, renovation came slowly until Khoury initiated the project.

“When you first walked inside, there were some wood props that were supporting the arches which were damaged during an earthquake in 1927. That was exposed and the ceiling was protected and saved for the first time in about 60 years, more than, about 80 years,” Karam said.

During the renovation, architects discovered a hidden door that had been made in Armenia and donated by the Armenian Emperor many centuries before with engravings in Armenian and Arabic.

Karam said the columns were repaired, and the church’s original flooring was covered in ceramic mosaic tiles, which are actually two feet below the current floor of the church. Parts of that original floor were exposed and cordoned off so visitors to the church could see more of the mosaic flooring that was only partially exposed previously.

The renovation has restored the famous “Seven Angels” that are pointing to the grotto where Jesus was born. There are mosaic paintings on the walls inside the church including of Jesus’ family lineage, a depiction of Saint Thomas feeling Jesus’ wound after his crucifixion and a mosaic of the Palm Sunday, Karam said. Below that is the Orthodox chapel and the grotto. But the floor there is not yet restored but is part of the remaining work to be done, he said.

Karam said that the renovations were delayed during the past two years by many factors.

“The works were supposed to be completed by 2018 but there were not enough funds to complete and then the pandemic hit us. This delayed us too much from fundraising and also for the work to continue,” Karam said.

“Now, we expect completion maybe in one year provided we get the funds available, about $2 million for the stone tiling and the tiling of the promenade outside.”

Karam said that there will also be a sprinkler system installed to prevent fires. 

Smoke from lighted candles also damaged the mosaics so vents were installed for the smoke to be expelled from the church.

“The renovations will ensure that the Church of the Nativity survives for the next 2,000 years,” Karam said.


Italian pharma giant opens Mideast HQ in Dubai

Italian pharma giant opens Mideast HQ in Dubai
Updated 15 min 10 sec ago

Italian pharma giant opens Mideast HQ in Dubai

Italian pharma giant opens Mideast HQ in Dubai
  • Move is part of Menarini’s planned regional expansion
  • CEO: ‘We are looking forward to serve many more patients in the Middle East’

LONDON: Italian pharmaceutical giant Menarini has opened its Middle East headquarters in Dubai’s Science Park.

Specializing in pharma research and production, consumer healthcare, oncology and diagnostics, the move is part of the group’s planned expansion into the Middle East and Africa.

“It is a historical moment for us as we open our regional offices in Dubai to significantly grow our presence and portfolio in the Middle East,” said CEO Elcin Barker Ergun.

“As a 135-year-old family-owned company, we are looking forward to serve many more patients in the Middle East in the coming years with our unwavering commitment to quality.”

Among those in attendance at the opening ceremony was Amin Hussain Al-Amiri, assistant undersecretary of public health policy and licensing in the UAE.

Also in attendance were Italian Ambassador Nicola Lener, Menarini’s General Manager Luca Lastrucci, and its regional head Basel Thaher.

Ali Al-Sayed, director of the pharmaceutical services department at the Dubai Health Authority, said: “A defining objective of Dubai 2030 is to be a global hub for knowledge-based, sustainable and innovation focused businesses.

“As a company with longstanding roots based in medical research, Menarini will be a strong contributor to this visionary strategy.”

He added: “Together, we share Dubai’s overarching healthcare vision of positioning Dubai as the leading destination for healthcare knowledge, education and training.”


Iran protesters seek justice as building collapse toll rises

Iran protesters seek justice as building collapse toll rises
More than four days after the tower block’s collapse, rescue teams were recovering bodies from under slabs of cement. (AFP)
Updated 27 May 2022

Iran protesters seek justice as building collapse toll rises

Iran protesters seek justice as building collapse toll rises
  • A large section of the 10-story Metropol building crumbled on Monday, causing one of Iran’s deadliest such disasters in years
  • More than four days after the tower block’s collapse, rescue teams were still recovering bodies from under slabs of cement

TEHRAN: Hundreds of people took to the streets in southwestern Iran demanding justice after a tower block collapse killed 24 people, news outlets in the Islamic republic said on Friday.
A large section of the 10-story Metropol building that was under construction in the city of Abadan, in Khuzestan province, crumbled on Monday, causing one of Iran’s deadliest such disasters in years.


Images published by Fars news agency showed hundreds of residents marching along Abadan’s streets on Thursday night, mourning those who lost their lives by banging on traditional drums and hitting cymbals.
Some shouted “Death to incompetent officials” and hailed the “Martyrs of Metropol,” Fars said.
People also took to the streets of Khorramshahr city, in the same province, expressing their sympathy with the families of those who died and calling for “a decisive and serious” trial of those responsible, it added.
Similar protests were held on Wednesday night in Abadan, state TV had reported.
More than four days after the tower block’s collapse, rescue teams were still recovering bodies from under slabs of cement.

A video posted on Tasnim news agency’s website on Friday showed rescuers carrying a gurney with a body wrapped in a black bag.
Abadan governor Ehsan Abbaspour, cited by ISNA news agency, said the number of people killed in the disaster stood at 24, up from 19 previously.
Officials said 37 people were also injured, although most have since been discharged from hospital.
It remains unknown how many people may still be trapped under the rubble.

More than four days after the tower block’s collapse, rescue teams were recovering bodies from under slabs of cement. (AFP)
Iran’s supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei had called for perpetrators to be prosecuted and punished, in a statement posted on his official website on Thursday.
The provincial judiciary said at least 10 people were arrested following the incident, including the mayor and two former mayors, accused of being “responsible” for the collapse, the Judiciary’s Mizan Online website reported.
An investigation has been opened into the cause of the disaster in Abadan, a city of 230,000 people, 660 kilometers (410 miles) southwest of Tehran.
First Vice President Mohammad Mokhber visited Abadan on Friday to “investigate the dimensions of the building collapse incident,” according to ISNA.
In a previous major disaster in Iran, 22 people, including 16 firefighters, died in a blaze that engulfed the capital’s 15-story Plasco shopping center in January 2017.


Iran summons Swiss envoy over US seizure of Iranian oil

Iran summons Swiss envoy over US seizure of Iranian oil
The ministry called for an immediate release of the ship and its cargo. (Reuters)
Updated 27 May 2022

Iran summons Swiss envoy over US seizure of Iranian oil

Iran summons Swiss envoy over US seizure of Iranian oil
  • The US seized Iranian oil from a Russian-operated ship near Greece

Iran on Friday summoned the envoy of Switzerland, which represents US interests in Tehran, to protest against the US seizure of Iranian oil from a Russian-operated ship near Greece, the foreign ministry said in a statement quoted by Iranian media.
The ministry called for the immediate release of the ship and its cargo, the IRNA state news agency quoted it as saying.
The United States on Wednesday imposed sanctions on what it described as a Russian-backed oil smuggling and money laundering network for Iran’s Revolutionary Guards’ Quds Force.
A spokesperson for the US Department of Justice declined to comment on the oil seizure.
“The Islamic Republic expressed its deep concern over the US government’s continued violation of international laws and international maritime conventions,” IRNA and other media quoted the foreign ministry as saying.
A source at Greece’s shipping ministry told Reuters on Thursday that the US Department of Justice had “informed Greece that the cargo on the vessel is Iranian oil.”
It was unclear whether the cargo was impounded because it was Iranian oil or due to the sanctions on the tanker over its Russian links. Iran and Russia face separate US sanctions.
Three sources familiar with the matter told Reuters on Thursday that the US plans to send the cargo to the United States aboard another vessel.
The Iranian-flagged ship, the Pegas, was among five vessels designated by Washington on Feb. 22 — two days before Russia’s invasion of Ukraine — for sanctions against Promsvyazbank, a bank viewed as critical to Russia’s defense sector.
IRNA reported on Wednesday that its foreign ministry summoned the charge d’affaires of Greece’s embassy in Tehran following the seizure of the cargo of a ship which was “under the banner of the Islamic Republic of Iran in Greek waters and he was informed of the strong objections” of Iran’s government.
IRNA quoted Iran’s Ports and Maritime Organization as saying the tanker had sought refuge along the Greek coast after experiencing technical problems and poor weather, adding that the seizure of its cargo was “a clear example of piracy.” 


US seizes 600,000 barrels of smuggled Iranian crude oil

US seizes 600,000 barrels of smuggled Iranian crude oil
Updated 27 May 2022

US seizes 600,000 barrels of smuggled Iranian crude oil

US seizes 600,000 barrels of smuggled Iranian crude oil
  • Cargo confiscated off coast of Greece 
  • Sanctions enforced again as nuclear deal hopes fade

JEDDAH: The US has confiscated more than 600,000 barrels of smuggled Iranian crude oil from a tanker off the coast of Greece in a new wave of sanctions enforcement.
The cargo of oil was pumped off the tanker into another vessel on Thursday and is now being transferred to the US.
The oil tanker, the Pegas, was targeted under two sets of sanctions — against Russia because it is Russian owned, and against Iran because it was carrying Iranian oil.
The Pegas was one of five vessels named by Washington on Feb. 22, two days before Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, in sanctions against Promsvyazbank, a bank viewed as critical to Russia’s defense sector. The tanker was renamed Lana on March 1 and has been flying the Iranian flag since May 1.
The vessel, with 19 Russian crew members on board, was initially impounded by Greek authorities last month off the coast of the southern Greek island of Evia.
Greece said the ship had been seized as part of EU sanctions on Russia for the invasion of Ukraine, but the vessel was later released.

FASTFACT

The oil tanker, the Pegas, was targeted under two sets of sanctions — against Russia because it is Russian owned, and against Iran because it was carrying Iranian oil.

However, the US imposed new sanctions this week on a Russian-backed oil smuggling and money laundering network for the Quds Force, the foreign operations unit of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps. As a result, the oil tanker was seized again.
Iran’s Ports and Maritime Organization said the tanker had sought refuge along Greece’s coast after experiencing technical problems and poor weather, and the seizure of its cargo was “a clear example of piracy.”
Iran’s Foreign Ministry summoned the charge d’affaires of Greece’s embassy in Tehran following the seizure of the cargo.
The ship was “under the banner of the Islamic Republic of Iran in Greek waters and he was informed of the strong objections” of Iran’s government, the ministry said.
In 2020, Washington confiscated four cargos of Iranian fuel aboard foreign ships that were bound for Venezuela and transferred them with the help of undisclosed foreign partners on to two other ships which then sailed to the US.
Operations against smuggled Iranian oil had tailed off recently amid hopes for a revival of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, the deal to curb Iran’s nuclear program in return for the lifting of sanctions, including those targeting oil exports.
However, talks on reviving the deal have stalled, and the new oil cargo seizure suggests that the US is again enforcing sanctions.
Washington’s Iran envoy said this week the chances of reviving the nuclear deal were now shaky at best, and the US was ready to tighten sanctions on Iran.


Talk of closing last Syrian aid lifeline ‘a moral abomination,’ UN commission says

Talk of closing last Syrian aid lifeline ‘a moral abomination,’ UN commission says
Updated 27 May 2022

Talk of closing last Syrian aid lifeline ‘a moral abomination,’ UN commission says

Talk of closing last Syrian aid lifeline ‘a moral abomination,’ UN commission says
  • Cross-border agreement set to expire on July 10, with Security Council members already sparring over whether it should be extended
  • Number of Syrians facing hunger has almost doubled since 2019, as Ukraine war pushes up prices, and hits wheat and fuel supplies

NEW YORK: With the current UN Security Council’s exceptional authorization for humanitarian aid delivery through the last remaining border crossing into northwest Syria set to expire on July 10, the UN Syria Commission of Inquiry warned that it would be a “failure of the highest order” if the council failed to extend the life-saving operation.

“As the country faces its worst economic and humanitarian crisis since the start of the conflict, the international community must safeguard existing, life-saving cross-border assistance and increase their funding pledges to support this aid,” said a commission statement, which also expressed alarm at what it called a “trajectory of consistent narrowing of the cross-border humanitarian aid delivery.”

When deliveries of international aid to Syria began in 2014, the Security Council approved four border crossings. In January 2020, permanent member Russia used its power of veto to force the closure of all but one, Bab-al-Hawa.

Moscow argues that international aid operations violate Syria's sovereignty and territorial integrity.

Security Council discussions about the issue often prove difficult, with Russia and China consistently insisting that all humanitarian aid deliveries require the consent of the Syrian authorities.

Opposing views among council members last week on the need to extend the cross-border mechanism have sparked concern among humanitarian agencies, as the crossing so far has guaranteed access to desperately needed aid for millions of Syrians since 2014.

“It is a moral abomination that a Security Council resolution was in itself deemed necessary to facilitate cross-border aid in the face of consistent violations — by the government of Syria and other parties — of their obligations under international law to allow and facilitate humanitarian relief for civilians in need,” Paulo Pinheiro, chair of the UN Syria Commission, said.

The July 10 renewal vote comes as humanitarian needs throughout Syria are at their highest since the start of the war 11 years ago.

The UN estimates that 14.6 million Syrians are now in need of aid. Across the war-ravaged country, 12 million people face acute food insecurity, a staggering 51 percent increase since 2019, amid a conflict in Ukraine that has sent food prices skyrocketing and threatened supplies of wheat and other commodities.
 
In opposition-held northwest Syria, conditions are deteriorating due to continuing hostilities and a deepening economic crisis. About 4.1 million people there, mostly women and children, depend on aid to meet their basic needs.

Cross-border operations authorized by the Security Council allow aid to reach around 2.4 million people every month.

The commission said in its latest report that this lifeline is vital to the population in northwest Syria, adding that while some aid is delivered cross-line from within Syria, these deliveries contain much smaller, insufficient quantities and are exposed to attacks along a dangerous delivery route that crosses active front lines.

During its 11 years of investigating the conflict, the commission has documented that both the government and armed groups have repeatedly used humanitarian aid as a political bargaining chip, often deliberately withholding it for specific populations, particularly those under siege.

The commission also maintains that across all territories of Syria, staff members of humanitarian organizations constantly run the risk of being harassed, arbitrarily arrested and detained.

Commissioner Hanny Megally said: “Parties to the conflict have consistently failed in their obligation to allow and facilitate rapid and unimpeded passage of humanitarian relief for civilians in need across Syria. It is unconscionable that the discussion seems to focus on whether to close the one remaining authorized border crossing for aid, rather than how to expand access to life-saving aid across the country and through every appropriate route.”

Earlier this month, humanitarian aid organizations sounded the alarm at an EU-hosted Brussels VI Conference on Syria.

“The funds for humanitarian assistance are simply not sufficient to address the needs and protect the Syrians right now,” Pinheiro said.

“The international community cannot now abandon the Syrian people. They have endured 11 years of devastating conflict that has inflicted unspeakable suffering. They have never been more impoverished and in need of our help.”