Church of the Nativity Getting a Face Lift

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BETHLEHEM -- The Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem -- the traditional site of the birth of Jesus -- is one of the most revered places in all of Christendom and the destination of Christian pilgrims from all over the world. Now, the 600-year-old church is getting a much-needed face lift.

The first stage of restoration began to repair water damage to the rooftop and windows.

"The water also has a bad effect on the plastered surfaces, on the mosaics, on the floors, on the frescoes," Project manager Afif Tweme told CBN News, adding that it could also damage "any of the historical elements inside the church."

As one of Christianity's most revered sites, the church attracted more than 2 million visitors last year. But the building, with remnants up to 1,500 years old, has been neglected for decades. 

Helena, the mother of the Emperor Constantine, built the first church in the fourth century over a cave where tradition says (or some say) the virgin Mary gave birth to Jesus.

Today, pilgrims see the basilica built later by the Byzantine Emperor Justinian the First.

The construction doesn't include the area most Christians visit: the crypt where many believe Jesus was born.

The pilgrims who visit the church don't seem to mind the restoration work.

"We of course cannot see very much because of the scaffolding, but it seems the right thing to do," Peter Lankes, a tourist from England, told CBN News. "We understand they're restoring the mosaics and look forward to coming back one day with a full visibility."

Sister Aziza, an Eritrean nun who lives in Israel, is delighted with the restoration.

"I'm very grateful and happy that they're renovating it; otherwise, it will fall. And it will be safer for people and also to worship," she told CBN News. "It is a nice step that they agreed to renovate it because for so many years I've been waiting for this renovation."

One by one, experts will repair the hundreds of wooden beams in the roof. The project coordinators say they'll try to preserve as many original pieces as possible.

"We'll save as many parts, even those in bad condition, as we can," said Giammarco Piancenti, president of the company overseeing the renovation. "We'll only replace pieces that are no longer functional and can no longer help hold the roof. They will be as few as possible and will be made of a compatible wood, of aged wood of the same type and quality."

European countries, the Palestinian Authority and other organizations are funding the project. The first phase of the renovation work is expected to be completed by September 2014.

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