The Palestinian government announced Monday it is planning an ambitious restoration project for the ancient church that marks the traditional birthplace of Jesus, an important Christian site that draws millions of visitors.
The renovation of Bethlehem's Church of the Nativity is expected to take several years and millions of dollars, according to Ziad Bandak, an official overseeing the restoration.
Bandak said this is the first comprehensive restoration project on the church since it was completed in the fourth century. He said the roof, pillars and mosaics in the church all need work.
"Rain leaking in has caused great damage to all of those, which led us to move quickly to repair the damage," Bandak said, adding that the project would also aim to fix general wear and tear on the centuries-old church.
The fortress-like church, built in the classic style with a long central area under a basilica lined with columns on both sides, is dark and damp. The main Christmas event, the Midnight Mass, is celebrated in the 19th century St. Catherine's Church next door to the Church of the Nativity.
The Palestinian government has appealed to European and Arab nations to help fund the project, Bandak said. He said the three churches that administer sections of the church have agreed to the project. Officials from the Latin, Greek and Armenian churches could not be reached for comment. Their rivalries have often led to fistfights between monks at the holy site.
Bethlehem was once the site of frequent battles between the Israeli military and Palestinian militants, but a drop in violence in recent years has boosted tourism to the town.
Foreign and local worshippers pack the old church at Christmas. As many as 2 million people visit the church every year, according to Palestinian Tourism Minister Khouloud Daibes.
"The restoration won't hinder tourism and pilgrimage and worshipping in the church. Visitors and pilgrims are always welcome to visit the church in all phases of the restoration," she said.
On Monday, the church was littered with building materials as workers assessed the scope of needed repairs.
A group of Italian artisans hovered over one of the church's mosaics, studying the tiny stones.
"We are checking the colors, the stone, the conservation, and after that we will do the restoration," said Stefano Defen, one of the restorers. "There is a lot to do."