Restoration of Bethlehem’s Church of the Nativity uncovers long hidden treasures  

Christian worshippers walk outside the Church of the Nativity ahead of Christmas the biblical city of Bethlehem on Dec. 19, 2021. (AFP
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Christian worshippers walk outside the Church of the Nativity ahead of Christmas the biblical city of Bethlehem on Dec. 19, 2021. (AFP
Christian worshippers light candles outside the grotto at the Church of the Nativity in the West Bank city of Bethlehem, on December 19, 2021. The UNESCO World Heritage site has been undergoing restoration work since 2013. (AFP)
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Christian worshippers light candles outside the grotto at the Church of the Nativity in the West Bank city of Bethlehem, on December 19, 2021. The UNESCO World Heritage site has been undergoing restoration work since 2013. (AFP)
Christian worshippers visit the Greek Basilica at the Church of the Nativity on Dec. 19, 2021. (AFP)
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Christian worshippers visit the Greek Basilica at the Church of the Nativity on Dec. 19, 2021. (AFP)
People gather outside the entrance to the Chapel of Saint Catherine at the Church of the Nativity complex on Dec. 19, 2021. (AFP)
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People gather outside the entrance to the Chapel of Saint Catherine at the Church of the Nativity complex on Dec. 19, 2021. (AFP)
Restoration of Bethlehem’s Church of the Nativity uncovers long hidden treasures  
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A view  of the Church of the Nativity, the traditional place of Christ's birth, in the biblical city of Bethlehem. (AFP)
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A view of the Church of the Nativity, the traditional place of Christ's birth, in the biblical city of Bethlehem. (AFP)
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Updated 25 December 2021

Restoration of Bethlehem’s Church of the Nativity uncovers long hidden treasures  

Restoration of Bethlehem’s Church of the Nativity uncovers long hidden treasures  
  • This Christmas, visitors to the purported birthplace of Jesus Christ can encounter details uncovered for the first time in centuries
  • A baptismal font, a glass lantern and a mosaic of an angel are just some of the surprise discoveries made during repairs  

AMMAN: Years of meticulous restoration work at the Church of the Nativity in the West Bank city of Bethlehem have uncovered a precious trove of previously undiscovered artworks, relics and artifacts dating back centuries. 

Christians believe Jesus Christ was born at the site where the church now stands — an event that is celebrated every year on Dec. 25. As such, Bethlehem and the church itself are considered places of pilgrimage by Christians the world over. 

The COVID-19 pandemic may have reduced the long lines of pilgrims and tourists to a trickle over the past two years, but those fortunate enough to attend will have noticed significant changes at the site since renovations began.




Christians believe the grotto of the Church of the Nativity to be the place where Jesus Christ was born. (Supplied)

Inscribed on the UNESCO World Heritage List in 2012, a church was first completed at the site in 339. The edifice that replaced it after a fire in the sixth century retains elaborate floor mosaics from the original building.

Thanks to several years of sensitive restoration work, many hidden details have been revealed for the first time in centuries, including original stonework, detailed ornamentation and precious objects lost to time. 

Renovation work began in 2013 after a generous donation from Palestinian philanthropist Said Khoury, who during a visit noticed that rainwater was seeping into the church through its deteriorating roof.

Determined to do something to protect the site, Khoury, then chairman of the Athens-based Consolidated Contractors Company (CCC), met with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas to discuss the matter and donated half a million dollars to kick-start the restoration.




Restoration work was made possible by donations from around the world. (Supplied)

The Presidential Committee for the Restoration of the Church of Nativity was established and, before long, donations to support the renovation were flooding in from around the world. 

An international tender was made with the help of CCC to ensure the renovation work was carried out to the highest standards in order to protect the church’s World Heritage status. 

“The Italian firm that won the tender, Piacenti, are expert restorers for three generations and they carried out the work according to the specifications that were dictated by UNESCO,” Mazen Karam, CEO of the Bethlehem Development Foundation, told Arab News.

Karam and his foundation colleagues, who raise funds and supervise the renovation work, are thrilled with the number of new discoveries that have been made over the course of the restoration. These included a beautiful, hand-crafted glass lamp. 

The restoration team also discovered a baptismal font hidden under a layer of marble, and uncovered an angel on the northern wall of the basilica, which had been covered with plaster. 

“The angel is just one of the many surprise discoveries that we have seen in the church once the renovation process began,” said Karam.

Another big surprise was the discovery of the building’s original door, now faithfully restored, which is believed to have been gifted to the church by an Armenian king. 

Tour guides encourage visitors to see the church after dark from the direction of Manger Square to experience the full effect of the new lighting installed among its restored walls. 

On entering the church, visitors pass through the Door of Humility — a stone entrance that was deliberately built with a low ceiling that forces worshippers to bow in reverence.

Once inside, visitors can fully appreciate the tireless effort that has gone into restoring the lofty ceilings, pillars, walls and paintings. 

Perhaps most importantly, the restoration has halted the scourge of rain damage. The last time the roof underwent major repairs was in 1480 during the Mamluk period. “Now we can say with confidence that the ceiling will be good for another 1,000 years,” Karam said.

During the repairs, the whole roof was covered with 1,625 square meters of new lead sheeting and around 8 percent of its wooden trusses replaced with ancient wood brought from Italy, reinforced with steel connectors to protect the basilica from seismic activity.

FASTFACTS

The church roof last underwent major repairs in 1480 during the Mamluk period.

UNESCO removed the church from its List of World Heritage in Danger in 2019.

Restoration to date has cost around $15m, but a further $2.8m is needed.

All 42 of the church’s wooden window frames were replaced and fitted with UV-deflecting double glazing. About 3,365 square meters of internal plastering, 3,076 square meters of external stone facades, and 125 square meters of wall mosaics were renovated, consolidated and cleaned, while 50 stone columns were restored and repainted.

Such was the success and quality of the restoration work that UNESCO removed the Church of the Nativity from the List of World Heritage in Danger in 2019.

The Bethlehem Development Foundation said it was particularly grateful for the “extremely professional and respectful” support of the presidential committee and the Palestinian government, which ensured that resources and expertise were made available. 

To date, the restoration work has cost around $15 million. However, the repairs are not yet complete, and an estimated $2 million in additional funding will be needed to finish this phase of the project.

Work completed to date includes the restoration of the sixth-century marble tiles for the Bema in front of the Orthodox Iconostasis and transept south. 

Projects yet to be funded include the conservation of the front-yard stone tiles, the installation of a firefighting system and microclimate controls, structural consolidation at the north and south corners of the basilica, the consolidation of its external southern wall against seismic activity, and the restoration of the central nave. 

Perhaps the most sensitive portion of the church that remains to be refurbished is the Grotto of the Nativity, a subterranean space where Christians believe Jesus was born. The precise spot is marked by a silver star. 

The foundation said that the grotto is in urgent need of repairs, which will cost an estimated $2.8 million, having suffered centuries of earthquakes, fires, and the wear and tear of hosting millions of visitors. 

However, the issue is not entirely a question of money. Given its religious significance, any work on the grotto must first be approved by the three churches that guard the site — Orthodox, Catholic and Armenian. 

Restoration of the site could also deny pilgrims and tourists access to the grotto for up to eight months. 

“The grotto will require a number of things before we can begin working on it,” the foundation told Arab News. “We need the approval of the three churches and we expect that this will require a further $2.8 million and will require that all works, including the grotto, can be completed by 2023 if the needed funding is secured.” 

One solution the churches, Bethlehem municipality and the Palestinian Ministry of Tourism would like to see is a phased restoration that allows for scheduled prayer and some visits to the grotto.

Karam said that this approach will allow the Church of the Nativity to remain both a place of worship and a site of historical curiosity to people of all faiths and denominations while it undergoes repairs. 

“Your visit will help keep it alive as a testimony to the living church and will prevent it from turning into a museum,” he said.


Oman ends all COVID-19 protective measures

Oman ends all COVID-19 protective measures
Updated 10 sec ago

Oman ends all COVID-19 protective measures

Oman ends all COVID-19 protective measures
Oman announced on Sunday the lifting of all measures that had been taken to prevent the spread of COVID-19, in all venues and for all activities, state TV reported, citing a statement from the government committee dealing with the pandemic.
There have been 389,943 infections and 4,260 coronavirus-related deaths reported in the sultanate since the pandemic began, according to Reuters data.

Four killed in attempt to smuggle drugs from Syria -Jordan’s armed forces

Four killed in attempt to smuggle drugs from Syria -Jordan’s armed forces
Updated 22 May 2022

Four killed in attempt to smuggle drugs from Syria -Jordan’s armed forces

Four killed in attempt to smuggle drugs from Syria -Jordan’s armed forces

Four people were killed in an attempt to smuggle large amounts of drugs from Syria to Jordan, the kingdom’s armed forces said on Sunday.
Some smugglers were also wounded while others escaped by going back to Syria, it said.
The Jordanian armed forces did not specify who killed or wounded the people involved.
War-torn Syria has become the region’s main production site for a multi-billion dollar trade also destined for Iraq and Europe. Syrian President Bashar Assad’s government denies involvement in drug making and smuggling.
In January, Jordanian soldiers killed at least 27 armed smugglers and wounded others as they crossed the border.


Israel reports monkeypox case as virus spreads to Middle East

Passengers arrive at the COVID-19 testing site of Israel's Ben Gurion airport in Lod on May 19, 2022. (AFP)
Passengers arrive at the COVID-19 testing site of Israel's Ben Gurion airport in Lod on May 19, 2022. (AFP)
Updated 22 May 2022

Israel reports monkeypox case as virus spreads to Middle East

Passengers arrive at the COVID-19 testing site of Israel's Ben Gurion airport in Lod on May 19, 2022. (AFP)
  • The virus, which causes distinctive pustules but is rarely fatal, is endemic to parts of central and west Africa

JERUSALEM: Israel confirmed its first case of monkeypox on Saturday, joining several European and North American countries in detecting the disease endemic to parts of Africa.
A spokesman for Tel Aviv’s Ichilov hospital said that a 30-year-old man, who recently returned from western Europe with monkeypox symptoms, had tested positive for the virus.
The virus, which causes distinctive pustules but is rarely fatal, is endemic to parts of central and west Africa.
In recent weeks, cases have been detected in Britain, France, Germany, Belgium, Italy, Portugal, Spain and Sweden as well as in the US, Canada and Australia, raising fears the virus may be spreading.
Symptoms of the rare disease include fever, muscle aches, swollen lymph nodes, chills, exhaustion and a chickenpox-like rash on the hands and face.
The virus can be transmitted through contact with skin lesions or droplets from a contaminated person, as well as through shared items such as bedding or towels.


Ex-Tehran hostage: ‘Blundering’ IRGC is ‘Iranian

Kylie Moore-Gilbert. (AFP)
Kylie Moore-Gilbert. (AFP)
Updated 21 May 2022

Ex-Tehran hostage: ‘Blundering’ IRGC is ‘Iranian

Kylie Moore-Gilbert. (AFP)
  • Moore-Gilbert was arrested in 2018 after leaving a conference but realized that she was being used as a pawn to extract concessions and funding from Western countries

LONDON: A former dual national prisoner jailed by Iran has said that the country’s elite Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps are “blundering and brainwashed idiots.”
British Australian academic Kylie Moore-Gilbert, 35, who was jailed for almost three years on trumped-up charges of spying, told The Telegraph that her captors were incompetent and were “not well versed in security, geopolitics or counter-espionage.”
While detained in Evin Prison in Tehran, Moore-Gilbert was accused of operating as a spy in the country before her arrival, thanks to a mistake on the part of the IRGC, who used the wrong calendar in reference to her account.
After her ordeal and release in late 2020, Moore-Gilbert began writing a book, “The Uncaged Sky,” which details her treatment in Iran. It was released in April this year.

BACKGROUND

British Australian academic Kylie Moore-Gilbert was arrested in 2018 after leaving a conference but realized that she was being used as a pawn to extract concessions and funding from Western countries.

She said: “They’re not necessarily talented or skilled. Some of them are smart but they're brainwashed.
“I watched the movie about Johnny English in Farsi in my cell, and I thought, that is the Revolutionary Guard — the Iranian Johnny English. Most of the time, they are blundering around arresting innocent people because of brainwashing and conspiracy theories.”
The IRGC is Iran’s elite fighting force and answers directly to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
But critics argue that in the case of Moore-Gilbert and other dual nationals arrested and jailed by the force — including Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe — the IRGC uses hostage-taking as a means to generate funds.
Moore-Gilbert was arrested in 2018 after leaving a conference but realized that she was being used as a pawn to extract concessions and funding from Western countries.
She said: “I had been calling for my case to be made public from the first few months of my arrest. I was telling my family on the phone — go to the media, get it out there, don’t keep it a secret. But unfortunately that wasn’t listened to.
“I don’t blame my family for it at all, the advice they were getting from the government was it’s better to keep quiet.”
The academic urged families of hostages taken by Iran to go public through media campaigns. “I don’t see any evidence of hostages being treated worse in prison (after going public),” she said. “I noticed that great attention was placed on my medical situation after the arrest became public.”
And to make matters worse, the academic discovered that her husband, Ruslan Hodorov, a Russian Israeli dual national, had been having an affair in Australia during her time in jail.
But Moore-Gilbert described the discovery as a “blessing in disguise.” The two have since divorced.
She said: “Whilst it doesn’t reflect well on his character that he abandoned me in my darkest moment, I’m better off without him.”


Lebanese government goes into caretaker mode amid calls to expedite economic recovery plan

Lebanon's President Michel Aoun (R) and Prime Minister Najib Mikati (C) heading the cabinet meeting in Beirut on May 20, 2022.
Lebanon's President Michel Aoun (R) and Prime Minister Najib Mikati (C) heading the cabinet meeting in Beirut on May 20, 2022.
Updated 22 May 2022

Lebanese government goes into caretaker mode amid calls to expedite economic recovery plan

Lebanon's President Michel Aoun (R) and Prime Minister Najib Mikati (C) heading the cabinet meeting in Beirut on May 20, 2022.
  • Rescue opportunities only available through IMF, says PM Najib Mikati
  • Hezbollah-backed MP Gebran Bassil draws fire over electricity crisis

BEIRUT: The mandate of the newly elected Lebanese parliament begins on Sunday amid warnings that any delay in the country's economic recovery plan would have a high cost. The term of the previous parliament expired on Saturday.

Lebanese President Michel Aoun said the government of Najib Mikati was considered to have resigned based on the constitution.

Aoun expressed his appreciation to the prime minister and ministers, asking the government to act in caretaker mode until a new government was formed.

The Cabinet held its final session on Friday fraught with last-minute decisions, including the approval of the economic recovery plan, amid objection from the ministers of Hezbollah and the Amal movement.

FASTFACT

The Cabinet held its final session on Friday fraught with last-minute decisions, including the approval of Lebanon’s economic recovery plan.

Mikati said: “Deposits of up to $100,000 will be fully protected,” stressing at the same time that there was “no economy without banks.”

The financial strategy in the plan includes a program to restore financial solvency “as a priority to enhance confidence in the state.”

In the medium and long term, it aims to put the debt on a regressive path through the introduction of gradual financial adjustments accompanied by permanent and strategic debt restructuring reforms.

The government also expects to cancel a large part of the Central Bank's foreign currency obligations to commercial banks.

The Cabinet approved an increase in the telecommunications tariff, starting July, accompanied by the formation of a ministerial committee to review the remarks from the communications minister’s plan.

It did not approve the item related to the customs dollar after the finance minister withdrew it from the agenda “to avoid public anger.”

The Cabinet approved allocating $35 million for chronic diseases and cancer drugs, provided that the amount was secured by the Housing Bank in US dollars, which would be enough for four months.

Mikati warned: “Any delay in the recovery plan will have a high cost. Had we resolved this two years ago, the cost would have been much lower.”

He stressed that rescue opportunities were only available through the International Monetary Fund, and the Central Bank should set the necessary standards to ensure the growth of the economy.

He criticized the attempts of some to prioritize their interest over the public interest, indirectly finding fault in how the Free Patriotic Movement had handled the electricity crisis.

“I personally received two offers from companies willing to operate the Al-Zahrani and Deir Ammar plants to produce electricity on gas at excellent prices. A consulting office was assigned to study the two offers, but unfortunately, the minister of energy withdrew this item from the Cabinet’s agenda to be further discussed.”

MP Ashraf Rifi, commenting on the electricity issue, said on Saturday: “What Mikati said about withdrawing these offers from the Cabinet’s agenda constitutes a continuation of a major crime committed against the Lebanese immersed in darkness. Hezbollah-backed Gebran Bassil is the one to blame.”

Bassil, he added, had taken over the Ministry of Energy since 2008 “as if it were his personal property, with all the failures, waste, and corruption practiced within it, and the Lebanese are paying the price.”

Rifi called on sovereign and reformist MPs to make the electricity issue their priority, agree on a plan of action, and hold those involved accountable.

The International Support Group for Lebanon has called on adopting the necessary legislation to secure economic stability in Lebanon, strengthen governance, and implement the reforms that Lebanon and its people urgently need to bring the country back up on its feet.

The ISG also called on all concerned parties to move quickly to form a government that can implement the vital reforms that are long overdue and to continue working with the IMF, including implementing the prior measures that Lebanon committed to in the staff-level agreement on April 7 to lay solid foundations for the sustainable social and economic recovery of Lebanon.

The US State Department urged the elected MPs and political leaders to respond to the Lebanese people's call for change and to work seriously and urgently to take the necessary measures to save the economy.

It called for the rapid formation of a government that was capable and committed to carrying out the serious work required to restore the confidence of the Lebanese people and the international community.

The elected parliament is meanwhile preparing to elect a speaker and deputy speaker.

The Development and Liberation bloc announced Najib Berri's nomination for the parliament speaker position at the end of a meeting headed by him. He has headed parliament since 1992 and nobody is running against him.

If Berri is elected by acclamation, this will be his seventh term.

The bloc stressed the need for the caretaker government to carry out its duties in the transitional period and follow up on issues that concerned people and their economic and social problems, especially controlling the exchange rate and securing fuel, bread, and other needs.

The FPM, the Lebanese Forces Party, and independent and reformist MPs are against Berri’s nomination.

Member of the Development and Liberation bloc, Dr. Michel Moussa, told Arab News: “In this defining stage, parliamentary blocs communicate with one another to voice their positions on Berri's candidacy, while it is only natural for him to be running.”

He explained that the blocs would hold their meetings next week. “But in Lebanon, everything is decided at the last minute.”

As of Sunday evening, the elected MPs will have 15 days to elect the speaker, said Moussa.

Otherwise, the process of assigning a new prime minister to form the next government would be disrupted, provided the caretaker government continued to function until a decree to form the new government was issued.

“All these things will become clear next week.”

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