UNESCO Voices Concern over Reported Mass Book-Burning in Iraq

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Al-Akhbar Management

Published Wednesday, February 4, 2015

UNESCO on Tuesday voiced concern over reports of mass book-burning in Iraq, saying it would be one of the most "devastating" such actions in history if confirmed.

Referring to reports that thousands of books on philosophy, law, science and poetry have been torched in recent weeks, UNESCO Director-General Irina Bokova said it was part of a campaign of "cultural cleansing."

"If confirmed, this would be one of the most devastating acts of destruction of library collections in human history," UNESCO said.

"Such destruction is a cruel reminder that the nations of the world must remain united to combat such fanaticism today," Bokova added.

The Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) spearheaded a sweeping militant offensive that has overrun much of the country, and has proceeded to burn precious manuscripts and archives and destroy sites it considers idolatrous or heretical, such as shrines and churches in Mosul — second-largest city in Iraq — Tikrit and other areas of Iraq it controls and excavated sites to sell objects abroad.

UNESCO said the "armed extremists in Iraq" were targeting "cultural heritage, cultural and religious minorities, and the documents and written evidence of one of the oldest civilizations in human history."

During a visit to Baghdad in early November, Bokova voiced a similar concern over Iraq’s cultural heritage.

"We have to act, we don't have time to lose, because extremists are trying to erase the identity, because they know that if there is no identity, there is no memory, there is no history, and we think this is appalling and this is not acceptable."

In September, officials said that ISIS militants were using intermediaries to sell priceless treasures, such as ancient Iraqi artefacts, on the black market to finance their activities.

The militants gained some experience of dealing in antiquities after taking control of large parts of Syria, but when they captured the northern Iraqi city of Mosul and the Nineveh province in June, they gained access to almost 2,000 of Iraq's 12,000 registered archaeological sites.

Iraq's heritage already suffered a major blow in the lawlessness and looting that followed the toppling of President Saddam Hussein by US-led forces in 2003, when looters torched buildings and ran off with treasures thousands of years old.

In early December, Bokova called for “protected cultural zone” in both Iraq and Syria, stressing the importance of cooperating with local actors and setting the Syrian city of Aleppo as a start point.

"I believe that the Umayyad mosque, located within the World Heritage site of the old city of Aleppo, could and should be our starting point. It is not too late to take action," she told a Paris conference on safeguarding the two countries' cultural riches.

Aleppo's old city, in particular, has witnessed some of the conflict's most brutal destruction,as the old citadel had been caught in the line of fire.

A UN report published late December shows that nearly 300 cultural heritage sites have been destroyed, damaged and looted in Syria since 2011.

Citing satellite evidence, the report focused on 18 areas, of which six are UNESCO-listed: the Old City of Aleppo; Bosra; Damascus, the Dead Cities of northern Syria; Crac des Chevaliers and Palmyra. Imagery of 290 locations at these sites showed 24 of them had been destroyed, 104 severely damaged, 85 moderately damaged and 77 possibly damaged.

(AFP, Al-Akhbar)

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