The Guardian – Bethlehem’s Church of the Nativity: saving the angels at Jesus’s birthplace

Italian craftsmen have begun urgent repairs to the centuries-old roof of the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, first constructed in the fourth century over the grotto where tradition says Jesus was born 2,000 years ago.

“Water leaks, earthquakes and incidents that happened here in Bethlehem had a negative impact on the whole structure and especially on the roof of the church,” said Ziad Bandak, head of the Palestinian committee overseeing the work.

“The leakage of the water affected the structure, the wood, the walls and the frescoes and mosaics inside.”

Church of Nativity in Bethlehem
Visitors light candles in the church. Photograph: Ammar Awad/Reuters

Marcello Piacenti, head of a family business that has been lovingly restoring the ancient shrines of Europe for six generations, said he was honoured to have won the international tender issued by the Palestinian Authority to repair crumbling pine and cedar timbers up to 800 years old and a lead roof donated by Edward IV of England in 1479.

“It’s very emotional to work here,” Piacenti said as his experts applied protective gauze to a gold-leaf mosaic of an angel high in the rafters above the sixth-century nave, constructed by the Emperor Justinian, and technicians probed deep into the thick wooden trusses to check for hidden damage. “This ancient structure has withstood the centuries and we hope to make our contribution to its continuing presence here.”

The leaky roof has sparked regular clashes between mop-wielding monks from the Greek Orthodox, Armenian and Catholic churches over who has authority to clean which parts of the shrine, which is shared between the three denominations under a brittle arrangement known as the status quo. The water damage has also harmed many of the wall frescoes and mosaics, which date back to Crusader times and beyond.

Church of the Nativity, Bethlehem
A Greek Orthodox priest walks inside the Church of the Nativity ahead of Christmas in Bethlehem. Photograph: Ammar Awad/Reuters

In 2009, the Palestinian president, Mahmoud Abbas, fearful that the church might collapse, issued a decree to repair the building which the warring parties that run the church finally accepted.

But despite the church being declared a Unesco heritage site in 2012, the Palestinians were able to raise only €2m of the €15m (£12.5m) required for the full renovation of the building. In this first phase, expected to last until next September, Piacenti’s men, together with five Palestinian colleagues, will repair or replace the roof lead and timbers and the church’s 18 upper windows.

“After we have stopped all the water leakage I hope it will be possible to begin restoring the other materials,” said Piacenti. “There are many angels up here. I hope we can save them.”

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