While on an official visit to Cairo last week, UNESCO Director-General Irina Bokova made several appeals to exploit the power of culture and knowledge to defeat intolerance and extremism especially among the young.
“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 instil today,” she declared.
Ms Bokova delivered the opening speech at the world conference on “Culture under Threat: the Security, Economic and Cultural Impact of Antiquity Theft in the Middle East” which was organised by the Antiquities Coalition, the Middle East Institute, in cooperation with the ministries of Foreign Affairs and Antiquities of Egypt and under patronage of UNESCO. The aim was to step up international efforts in the fight against illicit trafficking of cultural objects and antiquities.
“The destruction of cultural heritage is being used as a tactic of war, to intimidate populations, to finance criminal activities, to spread hatred,” she said.
UNESCO Director-General visited the venerable Islamic institution, al-Azhar where she met its Grand Imam, Sheikh Ahmed al-Tayeb and delivered a lecture on the fundamental role of intercultural dialogue and the truer knowledge of religion to foster tolerance and mutual understanding.
Ms Bokova again stressed the message of dialogue and unity 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 aims at mobilising international, regional and local efforts to protect and preserve threatened heritage and to stand against sectarian propaganda campaigns via different social networks and Internet.
The Director-General visited the museum which was damaged in January 2014 by a bomb explosion attributed to Islamist factions in front of the building, and discussed with a number of young archaeologists and curators, who today benefit from UNESCO’s emergency support, safeguarding the collections and pursuing the restoration work which is also funded by the Italian government.
On 14 May, President Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi received Ms Bokova to discuss cooperation in the fields of education, science, culture, media and communication. The President and the Director-General of UNESCO jointly condemned the destruction of cultural heritage underway, notably in Iraq and Syria. Ms. Bokova praised Egypt’s efforts to accelerate its developmental agenda. She expressed UNESCO’s readiness to support the national policy for development of technical and vocational education, to foster youth inclusion and social justice.
“I can hardly think of a better place than Egypt to deliver the message of peace embedded in cultural heritage,” Ms Bokova said. “Cultural diversity is in Egypt’s DNA, from the Pyramids to the beautiful Museum of Islamic Art, one of the richest in the world. I have visited the religious complex in Old Cairo, where the Coptic Church, the mosque and synagogues stand side by side, a few dozen metres apart. What would Egypt be without such diversity? This is precisely the message we need to share today, and I am more determined than ever to carry it forward.”
17 May 2015