A bid to list a preserved Moravian site in Co Antrim as Northern Ireland’s first cultural world heritage site has been launched.
The proposal to Unesco is part of a transnational bid involving three global sites – Bethlehem in Pennsylvania in the US, Herrnhut in Saxony, Germany, and Gracehill, near Ballymena.
If successful, Gracehill would be elevated to a status alongside the likes of the Taj Mahal and Great Wall of China.
All three settlements are associated with the Moravian Church, one of the oldest Protestant denominations in Christianity.
Gracehill is the best preserved Moravian settlement on the island of Ireland.
The village was laid out in the 18th century as a settlement of the Moravian Church and was designated as Northern Ireland’s first conservation area in 1975.
The nomination is being led by the US in conjunction with the German and UK governments.
It is the first multi-country bid in the 45-year history of the World Heritage Convention to be led by the US.
Colum Boyle, permanent secretary at Northern Ireland's Department for Communities, has welcomed the development.
He said: “Gracehill is an important part of our diverse heritage and the department has been pleased to work with the local community and council over many years as they have sought to preserve the village and ensure that its potential can be realised.
“If successful in securing world heritage site status, Gracehill and the wider community will benefit culturally and economically from this important accolade that will further protect an important piece of history for future generations.”
David Johnston of the Gracehill Trust believes securing world heritage status would be “hugely significant” to Northern Ireland.
He said: “Gracehill has been a good news story for 250 years and for the last 20 years we have been working with international partners to achieve world heritage status.
“The prize of world heritage designation would be hugely significant, and granting Northern Ireland its first cultural world heritage listing would bring benefits for tourism, the economy, regeneration, job creation and even reconciliation, whilst enriching the profile for the whole region.
“This is a unique opportunity to achieve something of lasting significance that everyone can be proud of and share in, with substantial potential benefits now and for generations to come.”
The Department for Communities and Mid and East Antrim Borough Council have provided financial support and expertise to Gracehill Trust to commission an international consultant to carry out research and prepare a nomination document to Unesco.
Mayor of Mid and East Antrim Borough Council, Noel Williams, added: “The purpose of world heritage is to help recognise and preserve the named area for present and future generations.
“Gracehill is an area of our borough that we are very proud of and for that reason we would champion any plans that preserve it.”
The transnational nomination will be considered for inscription on the world heritage list by the Unesco world heritage committee next year.
The Giant’s Causeway in Co Antrim was designated as a natural world heritage site in 1986, but if successful Gracehill would be the first in Northern Ireland to be granted cultural world heritage status.