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UNESCO head meets Al-Azhar Grand Sheikh in bid to protect region’s heritage from extremists | ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive 2005 -2017
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UNESCO Director-General Irina Bokova (L) and Al-Azhar Grand Sheikh Ahmed Al-Tayeb (C-R) meet at Al-Azhar University in Cairo, Egypt, on May 13, 2015. (Asharq Al-Awsat)

UNESCO Director-General Irina Bokova (L) and Al-Azhar Grand Sheikh Ahmed Al-Tayeb (C-R) meet at Al-Azhar University in Cairo, Egypt, on May 13, 2015. (Asharq Al-Awsat)

UNESCO Director-General Irina Bokova (L) and Al-Azhar Grand Sheikh Ahmed Al-Tayeb (C-R) meet at Al-Azhar University in Cairo, Egypt, on May 13, 2015. (Asharq Al-Awsat)

Cairo, Asharq Al-Awsat—UNESCO Director-General Irina Bokova met with Al-Azhar Grand Sheikh Ahmed Al-Tayeb on Wednesday in Cairo, in a bid to counter the threat extremist groups pose to global heritage sites in the Middle East.

After meeting with Tayeb at Al-Azhar, Bokova launched a conference, also at the institution, aimed at highlighting the threat posed by extremist groups to the region’s cultural heritage.

The conference also sought to highlight ways in which the international community and global organizations can counter the “growing destruction, looting, and trafficking of antiquities and the links between antiquities racketeering and terrorist financing,” according to a UNESCO press release.

During her speech at Al-Azhar, Bokova stressed that defeating terror groups such as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) would take more than military efforts and required a robust religious dialogue to counter the group’s ideology.

Al-Azhar, the foremost Sunni Islamic educational institute in the world, and one of the world’s oldest universities, has regularly been touted as a bulwark against extremist interpretations of Islam that give rise to the ideology of groups such as ISIS.

ISIS, which holds territory in Iraq and Syria, has destroyed several historical sites in both countries.

On Thursday, the extremist group advanced within one mile of the UNESCO World Heritage site of Palmyra in Syria. Heavy fighting is ongoing in the area as government forces attempt to prevent ISIS fighters from entering the ancient city ruins, which date back to the first century CE.

In March ISIS fighters bulldozed the ancient Assyrian city of Nimrud, built around 1,250 BCE on the banks of the Tigris River, some 20 miles (30 kilometers) south of the Iraqi city of Mosul, which the group still controls.

ISIS deems sites that predate the coming of Islam as idolatrous. However, recent reports have suggested the group has in fact looted artefacts to obtain funds for its activities by selling them on the black market.

Following the destruction of Nimrud, Al-Azhar released a statement condemning the destruction of the world’s global cultural heritage as a “war crime” incommensurate with the Islamic Shari’a, adding that Muslims were ordered by God in the Qu’ran to reflect on the heritage left by those who came before them.

It described ISIS’s view regarding such sites as “deviant,” insisting the group’s ideology was “ignorant” and that they had “failed to understand both the Qu’ran and the Sunnah of the Prophet,” the two main scriptural sources in Islam.

“Destroying antiquities is against Islam. For 14 centuries Islam has been in Egypt and has never destroyed monuments or heritage. Al-Azhar [was] established 1,000 years ago, and no [Islamic] scholars ever asked nor legitimized any destruction of cultural heritage,” Tayeb said on Wednesday following the meeting with Bokova.

An official from the institution told Asharq Al-Awsat on Wednesday that UNESCO was keen to “gain Al-Azhar’s support” in its fight to protect such sites in the region.

“Bokova spoke [during the meeting with Tayeb] of UNESCO’s need to work with Al-Azhar to counter the destruction of cultural heritage sites, in spreading a message of peace, and to repair what has been damaged by time and various circumstances in the Arab and Islamic worlds. All this can also have a positive effect globally,” the official said.

Following her meeting with Tayeb, Bokova said: “Al-Azhar is not only a very old and prestigious institution, it also plays a vital role to give education to young people, with half a million students, 10 percent of which come from abroad. It is a very powerful tool to disseminate the true message of human dignity and human life.”

“This encounter is extremely important to me . . . I believe UNESCO and Al-Azhar have the same ambition, we want to have educated young people, who know about other cultures, who respect their own religion and who respect the religion of the others. Al-Azhar has taken many important initiatives in this regard and I am determined to strengthen our cooperation in the future to that effect,” she added.

On Thursday Bokova launched UNESCO’s #Unite4Heritage campaign, aiming to protect cultural heritage sites and stop the illegal trafficking of artefacts from conflict zones around the world.

The campaign was launched from Cairo’s Museum of Islamic Art, itself damaged during a car bomb attack in January 2014, claimed by Ansar Bayt Al-Maqdis, a Sinai-based extremist group which now claims allegiance to ISIS under the name Sinai Province.