What are we doing to stop ‘cultural cleansing’?

 Before and after photographs show that the monastery of St Elijah was blown up in September 2014

Just recently, satellite images confirmed that the oldest Christian
monastery in Iraq has been destroyed by the jihadist group Islamic
State (IS). What is the international community doing – if anything – to stop ‘cultural cleansing’? Lyn Julius blogs at Clash of Cultures in the Jerusalem Post.

St Elijah’s stood on a hill near the northern city of
Mosul for 1,400 years. But analysts suggested it had been demolished in
late 2014, soon after IS seized the city.

A year ago,  UNESCO
was sufficiently alarmed by the destruction of cultural and religious
sites that it  hastily convened a conference at its Paris headquarters
to discuss what can be done to preserve what’s left in Iraq and Syria.
The iconoclastic jihadists of Islamic State – or Da’esh – had captured a
region in northern Iraq which contained 15 percent of Iraq’s registered
archaeological sites.

Believing that shrines ought to be
destroyed lest they encourage idol-worship, they have already blown up
or burnt to the ground shrines such as the tombs of Jonah and Seth,
Christian churches and Shi’a mosques. In both Syria and Iraq, Islamic
State have demolished, pillaged and dug up archaeological sites,
sometimes with bulldozers, and sold relics on the international black
market in order to finance their malevolent deeds.

Like most UN
agencies, UNESCO has blown hot and cold towards Israel and the Jewish
people. But this time, UNESCO had made a point of including the Jews in
its conference. The UNESCO director-general, Irina Bokova, had 
condemned the destruction in May 2014 of the Jobar synagogue near
Damascus. A shrine has stood on this site, legend has it,  since the
time of Elijah the Prophet.

When a JJAC delegation, accompanied
by CRIF, the body representing French Jews, submitted a list of 100
endangered Jewish sites to Mrs Bokova in June 2014, she lent a
sympathetic ear. And when Professor Shmuel Moreh, who has worked long
and hard for the preservation of ancient Jewish sites in Iraq made his
case, Mrs Bokova  – or her aides – were listening. Professor Moreh was
flown over from Israel to be a special guest at the conference, along
with representatives of Kurds, Assyrians, Turkmen and Yazidis.

then, IS has wreaked even more destruction. In August 2015 it shocked
the world  when it  released a video of the Temple of Baalshamin, at the
world heritage site of Palmyra in Syria, being blown up. Explosives
were reported rigged to another, larger temple, dedicated to the god

In September, UNESCO accepted an Italian proposal to send
in the ‘Blue helmets’ – the UN international peace keeping force – to
protect endangered sites.

In October 50 world leaders voted to
allocate resources for some 10,000 new troops, police, hardware, and
training schemes for UN forces.

In spite of their greater number
and better hardware, It is not clear how the  ‘blue helmets’ will fend
off the determined and fanatical jihadists of IS.

IS and other
militant groups are guilty of “cultural cleansing” in the Middle East,
the head of the UN’s heritage organisation has said. “Culture and
heritage are not about stones and buildings – they are about identities
and belongings.”

A conflict against culture is, by extension, an
effort to erase the identity of a people, especially vulnerable
non-Muslim minorities. These minorities once comprised the rich ethnic
and religious patchwork of a pluralistic Middle East. Now they are being
driven to extinction.

A cynic might ask ,what use is it to
preserve buildings and stones when people were starving? “Civic identity
to be built from the bottom up” when people were being beheaded? “Good
neighborliness and respect” when people were being sold into slavery?

the neighbors have been ethnically cleansed, as the Jews had been from
Syria and Iraq, with no prospect of return, who will speak up for their
heritage? Who would ensure that when the time came to rehabilitate and
renovate, traditional Jewish shrines such as the most revered of all,
Ezekiel’s tomb, would not be turned into mosques?

It is already
happening. The Hebrew inscriptions had been removed from the renovated
tomb of Joshua the High Priest near Baghdad. Loudspeakers had already
been affixed to Ezekiel’s tomb, and Koranic inscriptions hung on the
walls. Who would ensure that the original character of the shrine would
be retained?

And if objects stolen from minority communities are
recovered in the West, why should they be sent back to the Syrian or
Iraqi governments? As the saga of the Iraqi-Jewish archive demonstrated –
the personal possessions and mementos confiscated from their Jewish
owners by Saddam Hussein and shipped for restoration to the US – they
should be restituted not to governments, but  to the community which has
been displaced.

Beyond the expression of high-minded sentiments, none of these questions are being answered.

one important respect international action  might achieve results:
museum chiefs declared they would treat with suspicion any artifacts
offered to them from the Middle East, and would conduct “due diligence”
checks as far as possible. But private collectors were less likely to be
circumspect about the provenance of items. The international art market
was a  vessel  too leaky to render watertight.

It is tempting to
conclude that organisations like UNESCO, which were founded on the
pillars of intergovernmental law, seem well past their sell-by date in a
world where non-state actors ride roughshod over “kaffir” international
treaties and conventions. Even before the era of Islamic State, neither
Syria nor Iraq were signatories to the 1954 Hague Convention for the
Protection of Cultural Property in the event of armed conflict.

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