The effort to have Historic Moravian Bethlehem recognized as a World Heritage Site by the United Nations Education, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) took a major step forward as the United States Department of Interior submitted its first multi-country nomination to the UNESCO World Heritage List that includes the Historic Moravian Church settlements in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania; Herrnhut, Germany; and Gracehill, Northern Ireland/United Kingdom.
The nomination proposes to have Bethlehem, Herrnhut and Gracehill join Christiansfeld, Denmark, designated a World Heritage Site in 2015, to be a single transnational Moravian Church settlement site that represents world-wide Moravian Church settlements. As a World Heritage List candidate, along with Gracehill and Herrnhut, Bethlehem preserves and advances the ageless values of education, equality, industry, integrity and spirituality that have been part of the community since 1741.
In the release announcing their nomination, the National Park Service said, “The settlements illustrate the global dissemination of the Moravian Church’s distinct religious and social ideals in the 18th century, which are expressed in the towns’ plans and architecture with many buildings still used for their original purpose.”
“We are thrilled that the application for UNESCO World Heritage status has taken this major step forward,” said the Rev. Dr. Betsy Miller, president of the Provincial Elders’ Conference of the Moravian Church in America – Northern Province. “The story of the Moravian Church around the world will be told through the four historic settlement congregations. Our hope is that by learning our history, people around the world will also learn about our current life and witness.”
The Bethlehem site, designated as the Historic Moravian Bethlehem National Landmark District, is located in the heart of downtown Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. The site’s original architecture, along with its town planning across 10 acres, eight structures, four ruins, and a cemetery, stands today as a reflection of and tribute to the resilience of a community built on universal human ideals that are essential and relevant to this day. The Bethlehem Area Moravians, City of Bethlehem, and Moravian University are property owners in the District, and Central Moravian Church and Historic Bethlehem Museums & Sites are lessees of portions of the District.
The endeavor to seek World Heritage List recognition for Historic Moravian Bethlehem began in 2002 when Christiansfeld, Denmark, invited Bethlehem to join with representatives from other historic Moravian Church settlements in The Netherlands, South Africa, Germany and the UK. Since then, Historic Bethlehem Museums & Sites, its predecessor organizations and others have provided decades- long leadership. In 2017, former Mayor Robert Donchez established the Bethlehem World Heritage Commission to support and help with the actions necessary for Bethlehem to achieve World Heritage status. The Commission is composed of elected officials and leaders in education, business and non-profits.
In 2012, Historic Moravian Bethlehem was designated a National Historic Landmark District, one of eight in Pennsylvania and about 200 in the United States.
Historic Moravian Bethlehem National Landmark District was added to the U.S. World Heritage Tentative List in 2017 as a potential “extension” to the 2015 inscription on the World Heritage List of the Moravian Church Settlement of Christiansfeld in Denmark.
A Transnational Working Group has been meeting monthly for several years preparing the necessary documentation for this transnational nomination, with representatives from Christiansfeld, Gracehill, Herrnhut and Bethlehem. On September 14 and 15, 2021, representatives from these historic Moravian communities met in Bethlehem to work on the nomination. Last September, at Bethlehem’s City Hall, there was an official meeting of this Transnational Working Group to sign a Voluntary Association Agreement.
On February 1, 2022, the U.S. Department of the Interior authorized Historic Moravian Bethlehem National Landmark District to participate in the planned multi-country nomination to the World Heritage List of historic ‘Moravian Church Settlements’ in Europe and North America.
The World Heritage List, which recognizes cultural and natural sites of universal importance, was established in 1972 to “encourage the identification, protection and preservation of cultural and natural heritage around the world considered to be of outstanding universal value to humanity.” There are 1,154 sites in 167 countries. There are currently 1,154 sites on the World Heritage List, two examples of which are the Great Wall of China and the Pyramids at Giza in Egypt. There are only 24 World Heritage Sites in the United States, two of which are Independence Hall in Philadelphia and the Statue of Liberty in New York.
The final decision on the inclusion on the World Heritage List will be made by the UNESCO World Heritage Committee in the summer of 2024.