2 March 2015 - The Director-General of UNESCO, Irina Bokova, undertook an official visit to the Holy See, together with the President of the General Conference, H.E. Mr Hao Ping, and the President of the Executive Board, H.E. Mr Mohamed Sameh Amr. The Deputy Director-General, Mr. Engida Getachew and the Assistant Director-General for Social and Human Sciences, Mrs. Nada Al-Nashif, also accompanied the UNESCO delegation. During this visit to the Vatican, the Director-General was received by the Pope. The pontifical audience with Pope Francis was followed by meetings with His Eminence Cardinal Pietro Parolin, Secretary of State of His Holiness, and with His Excellency Monsignor Paul Gallagher, Secretary for Relations with States.
This official visit comes at a time when societies are witnessing deep challenges concerning the foundations of “living together”, as well as regarding the fundamental values of tolerance and respect for cultural diversity.
His Holiness Pope Francis commended UNESCO and the UN's critical role today as a platform for international cooperation and development, emphasising that it should retain its primary concern towards assisting the 'marginalized and the vulnerable across the world."
He commended UNESCO's work on education and actions targeting youth, stressing the collective responsibility of world leaders in listening to young people and in building a better world for the future generations --a world where there is respect for human dignity and social justice; respect for freedom of expression and equally respect all religions, referring to the critical role of religious leaders for interreligious dialogue.
'Education is an essential dimension of human dignity and the fight against exclusion and poverty,' declared Pope Francis.
Referring to this year's landmark conference on environment, Pope Francis spoke of the 'ethical imperative of ensuring environmental sustainability,' reaffirming the critical responsibility of States and of each and everyone's individual behaviour in times marked by inequalities in consumption.
The Director-General extended an invitation to His Holiness to grace UNESCO with his visit some time this year, as the Organization is marking the 70th anniversary of its birth.
'In our turbulent times, we need our joint message of tolerance and respect for human dignity to resonate loud and forcefully, UNESCO is the privileged place for sharing this message with the Holy See, a message of peace, of respect for cultural diversity, and of social justice.'
Pope Francis thanked the Director General for this invitation, confirming his intention to visit UNESCO in the near future.
State Secretary, Cardinal Pietro Parolin, referred to the long-lasting and excellent relations between the Holy See and UNESCO and thanked the Director-General for UNESCO's cooperation in the forthcoming conference on 'Education today and tomorrow' that will take place on 3rd June at UNESCO Headquarters.
Irina Bokova expressed her concerns over the threats to cultural and religious diversity across the world.
'We are witnessing growing persecution of cultural and religious minorities, which compels us to strengthen UNESCO's unique mandate as a platform for dialogue and for equality.'
His Eminence Cardinal Parolin praised UNESCO's action beyond the concept of development conceived only in its economic dimension, to embrace ethical and spiritual imperatives.
'Education and culture are at the core of building respect for human dignity and moral solidarity. We cannot think to change our world if we do not focus on education and culture.'
He pursued by emphasizing the pivotal role of human rights' and values' education and the central role of the family and of educational institutions in that regard.
'Education should lead youth to accept differences. We need to appreciate and accept the Other in its diversity for the common good of humanity as a whole,' declared Cardinal Parolin.
The Director-General informed Cardinal Parolin of UNESCO's advocacy for integrating cultural literacy and education for a global citizenship as pillars of the post-2015 global development agenda.
'Education is not a mere technical issue, it shapes today's and tomorrow's human beings, and ultimately the world as a whole.'
Irina Bokova pursued by stressing the direct link between the preservation of cultural heritage and respect for and appreciation of cultural diversity, also as a contribution to fostering intercultural dialogue.
In this context, Cardinal Parolin acknowledged the contribution of religion to achieve peace, respect and tolerance and the need to promote this dimension in education at a time when religion is being manipulated and taken hostage to violence and extremism.
'Religions must be seen as part of the solution and not as part of the problem,' he declared.
The Director-General concurred, highlighting the central role of religious leaders and the fact that religion has reached the frontline of politics, adding that UNESCO's strength lies in the its outreach and convening power to various constituencies, which includes religious leaders.
Referring to religious persecution and destructions in Iraq, Irina Bokova stressed 'the public consciousness has awaken now very strongly to the deep significance of this destruction for the world,' mentioning here also the recent adoption by the Security Council of Resolution 2199, which refers very explicitly to the importance of cultural heritage preservation and the fight against cultural cleansing and illicit trafficking of cultural objects in Iraq and Syria.
'This reflects our vision of the world and our stand for the respect for cultural diversity.'