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

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

Khoury approached the Palestinian government, which initially funded the roof repair campaign. The church, which houses the cave where Jesus was born over 2,000 years ago, was also in desperate need of further improvements as it had not undergone a significant renovation since 1480.

Thanks to Khoury, who died four years ago, the renovation of the Church of the Nativity is only a few years away from being completed, Mazen Karam, CEO of the Bethlehem Development Foundation – founded by Khoury.

The BDF continues to oversee 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 only began with the Khoury’s intervention in 2013.

“The objective of this initiative was initiated by the late Saïd Tawfiq Khoury and (she) was to restore the Church of the Nativity. The last time the church was restored was 500 years ago, in 1480. It hasn’t been taken care of, ”Karam told Arab News.

“A lot has happened. Numerous earthquakes caused damage to the church, while there was deterioration of the windows, roof and insulation.

“But he lay dormant for a few years until Said Khoury came and the rain fell on his head and he was not happy about it,” Karam told Arab News.

“It was common. It took a visionary to see him and go talk to the president of the country and tell him that we have no right to let the church deteriorate like that. President Mahmoud Abbas told Saïd Khoury that we fully support you. Go and do whatever you want, whatever you want to restore it to its original glory.

Karam said the church had many problems. It was deteriorating from so much damage and erosion that it was on the verge of collapse. The conflict with Israel also imposed restrictions, and the Palestinian National Authority intervened in 2009 to establish a committee that remained dormant until Khoury’s intervention.

The renovation of the church, commissioned by Constantine the Great around the year 330, not only aims to boost Christian morale, but also to protect the church from collapse.

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

“And during that time after the restoration started, they applied for a World Heritage site. But UNESCO placed it as an endangered World Heritage Site, which meant we had to do all the work to get it out of danger. Now it was removed from endangered status two years ago after all the work the Presidential Committee has done to restore it and we are safe now. But we must also maintain it. We have to find a way to keep up the work that we have been doing. “

Karem said Khoury always focused on the church and had visited it several times. Khoury himself initiated the studies and renovations, and also donated over $ 500,000 from his personal funds.

Renovating the church was not a simple matter, Karam said, as the church is governed by an agreement passed in 1879, which gives the three major Christian religions separate jurisdictions over different parts of the structure of the church. ‘church.

“The cave is more complex and complicated because of the more sacred parts of the church and it needs to be done well so as not to cause friction or changes to the status quo. Every piece of the Church of the Nativity was a problem. Even the switch was the problem, ”Karam said, noting that the three churches – Roman Catholic, Greek Orthodox and Armenian – had to come to an agreement.

“What we’ve done so far is 90 percent of the work and what’s left is 10 percent of the work. We only fundraise for the work that is approved for completion. So we have 10. percent of the work that has not yet been completed and is not yet funded. We are raising funds, approximately $ 2 million for the church to be completed. With the exception of the cave itself, that will come later.

Armenians, Catholics and Greeks each restored their convents and neighborhoods.

“The walls of the church, from the outside, have been restored to the original stone as if it was mined now and built now. It is a light colored Jerusalem stone which is original, all around the church, restored to its original beauty, ”Karam said.

As erosion and damage continued, the renovation was slow until Khoury started the project.

“When you first walked inside there were wooden props that supported the arches which were damaged in an earthquake in 1927. This was exposed and the ceiling was protected and saved for the first time in about 60 years, over about 80 years, ”Karam said.

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

Karam said the columns had been repaired and the original church floor was covered with ceramic mosaic tiles, which are actually two feet below the current church floor. Parts of this original floor have been exposed and cordoned off so that visitors to the church can see more of the mosaic floor that was only partially exposed before.

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

Karam said renovations have been delayed for the past two years by many factors.

“The work was supposed to be completed by 2018, but there was not enough funds to complete it, and then the pandemic hit us. It delayed us too much in fundraising and also in continuing the work, ”said Karam.

“Now we anticipate completion maybe in a year provided we get the funds available, around $ 2 million for the stone tiling and tiling for the promenade outside.”

Karam said a sprinkler system would also be installed to prevent fires.

The smoke from the burning candles also damaged the mosaics. Vents were therefore installed so that the smoke was expelled from the church.

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

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