In Egypt, UNESCO Director-General appeals to #unite4heritage to defeat extremism and intolerance

UNESCO Director-General, Ms. Irina Bokova, arrived yesterday evening to Cairo in an official visit to the Arab Republic of Egypt. On the first day of her mission, the Director-General made several appeals to harness the power of culture and knowledge to defeat intolerance and extremism, especially among youth.

“Egypt holds a special place in UNESCO’s history, because it has defined the gold standard in international cooperation for safeguarding the common heritage of humanity – this is precisely the spirit we need to instill today”, she declared.

Ms. Bokova first delivered an opening speech at the World Conference on “Culture under Threat: the Security, Economic and Cultural Impact of Antiquities Theft in the Middle East” organized by the Antiquities Coalition, the Middle East Institute, in cooperation with the ministries of Foreign Affairs and Antiquities of Egypt and under joint patronage of UNESCO.

The aim of this two-day conference is to step up international efforts in the fight against illicit trafficking of cultural objects and antiquities, as a means to halt the financing of terrorism.

“The destruction of cultural heritage is being used as a tactic of war, to intimidate populations, to finance criminal activities, to spread hatred. The fact that 10 ministers have gathered here today is a strong symbol of our joint commitment to respond and UNESCO is determined to live up to its responsibilities, because we believe the protection of heritage is far more that a cultural issue – it has become a security imperative”, declared the Director-General.

In a similar spirit, after an official encounter with the grand Imam of Al Azhar, His eminence Sheikh Al-Tayeb, the Director-General went to Al Azhar University, where she delivered a lecture on the fundamental role of intercultural dialogue and the truer knowledge of religion to foster tolerance and mutual understanding.

She underlined the role of all leaders, including religious leaders, to mobilize youth in order to respond to the false narrative of those who seek to distort the message of religion.

The Director-General commended the role of Al Azhar University in condemning the destruction of cultural heritage, and training young people around the world about the true message of Islam.

In front a packed room the President of the University delivered a passionate speech about Islam as a religion of moderation, and about teaching and reading as a combat against all forms of illiteracies.

Deans, Academic staff members, and representatives of Bayt al-‘A’ila (“the Egyptian Family Home”) from Al Azhar and the Egyptian Coptic Church also attended this highly symbolic and multi-confessional event.

Citing the Grand Imam of Al Azhar, the Director-General recalled that “Islamic civilization is a civilization of recognition and connection. Against the forces that divide humanity, we must foster precisely these ideas of recognition and connection, to tighten the bonds between all people and cultures.”

The message of peace is embedded in cultural heritage

It is precisely this message of dialogue and unity that the Director-General shared also at the Museum of Islamic Art, with the launch of the #Unite4Heritage Campaign in Egypt in cooperation with the Egyptian Ministry of Antiquities.

The campaign started by a solidarity stand against vandalism and terrorism with the participation of Ms Bokova and numerous Egyptian youth, in addition to representatives of official and international bodies.

The campaign aims at mobilizing the international, regional and local efforts to protect and preserve the threatened heritage and to stand against the sectarian propaganda campaigns via different social networks and Internet.

The Director-General visited the museum, which was damaged a year ago by a bomb explosion in front of the building, and could discuss with a number of young archeologists and curators, who benefit today from UNESCO’s emergency support, to safeguard the collections and pursue restoration work, funded also by the Government of Italy.

“I can hardly think of a better place than Egypt to deliver this message of peace which is embedded in cultural heritage”, said the Director-General.

“Cultural diversity is in Egypt’s DNA, from the Pyramids to this beautiful Museum of Islamic Art, one of the richest in the world. I have just visited the religious complex in Old Cairo, where the Coptic Church, the mosque and synagogues stand side by side, a few dozens of meters apart. What would Egypt be without the Sphinx or the Valley of the Kings? What would Egypt be without such a diversity? This is precisely the message we need to share today, and I am more determined to carry it forward”, she concluded.