Commissioned in 327 by the first Christian Roman Emperor, Constantine, and his mother Helena, the church was built over the cave, known as the Grotto, where the Virgin Mary gave birth to Jesus.
Christians believe Jesus was born inside the cave. The authenticity of the site is based on Christian apologist Justin Martyr’s (100-165) writing, in which he notes that the Holy Family sought refuge in a cave outside of Bethlehem:
But when the Child was born in Bethlehem, since Joseph could not find a lodging in that village, he took up his quarters in a certain cave near the village; and while they were there Mary brought forth the Christ and placed Him in a manger, and here the Magi who came from Arabia found Him. (Chapter LXXVIII).
In addition, the Greek philosopher (185 – c. 254) wrote:
In Bethlehem, the cave is pointed out where He was born, and the manger in the cave where He was wrapped in swaddling clothes. And the rumor is in those places, and among foreigners of the Faith, that indeed Jesus was born in this cave who is worshipped and reverenced by the Christians. (Contra Celsum, book I, chapter LI).
The original church built in 330 by Constantine was destroyed, probably during a Samaritan rebellion in 529. Byzantine Emperor Justinian rebuilt the current, much larger building that stands today.
A highlight of a tour of the church is a visit to the Grotto of the Nativity. Pilgrims form a line to touch a star inscribed with the words “Hic de Virgine Maria Iesus Christus natus est” which marks the spot of where Jesus was born.
The Roman Catholic, Greek Orthodox, Armenian Apostolic and Syriac orthodox churches jointly share custody of the site located in the city which is today in the Israeli-occupied West Bank under Palestinian Authority control.
In 2012, the church was named a Unesco world heritage site and placed on its endangered list the same year due to its poor condition and has been undergoing a major renovation since 2013.
During the restoration, workers discovered a 1,700-year-old mosaic of an angel that had been hidden underneath plasterwork.
In 2019, the church was removed from Unesco's list of endangered world heritage sites following restorations there.
Church and Palestinian officials have since overseen high-quality work restoring "roof, exterior facades, mosaics and doors," Unesco said in a statement.
A previous plan of concern to Unesco to dig a tunnel underneath Manger Square, in front of the church, was also abandoned, it said.
The committee reached the decision to remove it from the endangered list during a meeting in Baku, which began on June 30 and continues until July 10, it said in a statement.
While work is not expected to be completed until 2020, pilgrims continue to visit the sacred site. During the Christmas season, pilgrims from around the world visit the church and the grotto within it believed to be Jesus's birthplace.