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Region's Leaders Promise To Protect Iraq's Holy Sites


One of the things many countries can agree on is the importance of protecting Iraq's cultural and religious heritage in the midst of this conflict. There are holy sites in the country that have existed for thousands of years.

Last week, Iran's president vowed to cross the border to defend Shiite shrines in Iraq. And thousands of Shia Muslims in India have said they'll do the same. That would widen the conflict even more.

Karim Hendili is an Arab specialist at UNESCO's World Heritage Centre, which is dedicated to the protection of cultural sites like these. He joins us from their headquarters in Paris. Thanks so much for being with us.

KARIM HENDILI: Thank you. Hello.

SIMON: What sites are we talking about?

HENDILI: Well, basically in Iraq there are many Shia sites. Najaf, where the Imam Ali is buried - his shrine is there. And then after, the other site is Karbala, which is in the same area and which is where his son, Imam Hussain, is buried.

SIMON: The Shia are protecting that site themselves, I gather?

HENDILI: Yes. Yes, of course. It is important when you are a Shiite to try to be buried in Najaf cemetery, wherever you live. And for that reason, Najaf has been a safe place for quite a long time now, despite the fact that in other areas of the country, the security is not at the same level.

SIMON: And what can UNESCO do other than sound an alarm to the world?

HENDILI: Well, we are in very close contact with the responsible authorities in Iraq dealing with cultural heritage. This is the advantage of UNESCO, I mean, as an intergovernmental organization. We work very closely with the countries on the protection of cultural heritage in all its forms, whatever the origin of this heritage is, whatever the value it is for a certain community or another.

In this case, it's a bit particular if we compare it to other cases because here there is a such a strong mobilization of the Shia community that at some point, we do not intervene in the sense that our role, in any case, is to be ready whenever we are solicited by the country and by the responsible authorities to assist in protecting those sites or restoring them if need be.

But for the time being, we are just following that with the responsible authorities.

SIMON: Mr. Hendili, is your concern that sites would be caught in the chaos of war or would someone even want to deliberately attack them?

HENDILI: Well, there is always a concern, particularly when there are signs of deliberate attack to cultural heritage, whether it is religious or not. Of course, the sites - they are parts of Iraq's cultural heritage and are very important. So having threats to those sites is really much of concern, particularly when the motivation is ideological.

Unfortunately, there are many cases like this and when we see, for example, what's happening currently in Syria where slowly, unfortunately, we moved from collateral damage from the conflict and then moving to deliberate destruction for ideological reasons. This is, of course, much of concern.

SIMON: Mr. Hendili, has a lot already been destroyed in Syria?

HENDILI: Well, it depends on the areas. But, for example, the city of Aleppo - yes, yes, we have confirmation that a lot, a lot has been damaged. And unfortunately, it is one of the most difficult sites to protect in case of armed conflict.

And what I mean is that I'm talking about cities in general. This is where fighting takes place. There is also a lot of bombing there and something which was not there at the beginning of the conflict, which is deliberate destruction.

SIMON: I gather the director of UNESCO has called the destruction of a cultural heritage site a war crime. Is the idea of that to hold people accountable for their actions?

HENDILI: This is the idea UNESCO defense, which is when you affect people's heritage in a certain way, you affect people's identity. Identity is something you transmit from a generation to another and this is how a history of a country or a community is built. So at some point, this is lost. This can really have very important impacts on the future of the community.

SIMON: Karim Hendili, Arab specialist at UNESCO's World Heritage Centre, speaking to us from Paris. Thanks very much for being with us.

HENDILI: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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