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Working Group on Christians and Religious Pluralism in the Middle East

April 24, 2019

On April 24, Antiquities Coalition Executive Director Tess Davis joined former diplomats, religious leaders, and other experts in Washington, DC for a discussion on the urgency of preserving cultural heritage sites in the Middle East. This meeting was part of the Hudson Institute’s working group on Christians and Religious Pluralism in the Middle East. This bipartisan, multi-faith project is working to identify results-oriented activities that will save lives and restore stability to Christian populations as part of a religiously plural region.

In her remarks, Davis highlighted the importance of combating cultural trafficking and destruction, as well as concrete steps that could be taken in response by governments, non-governmental organizations, and the international community.

She first stressed that culture has always been used as a weapon of war. Many of the sites destroyed by Daesh (ISIS) in recent years — such as Nineveh, Nimrud, and Hatra — were also razed by ancient armies. However, throughout the Middle East today, heritage has also become a criminal, insurgent, and terrorist financing tool. This cultural racketeering is erasing millennia of history, while also funding bad actors who seek to destabilize the region further. Moreover, as with all atrocity crimes, ethnic, racial, religious minority groups are particularly at risk of cultural destruction and trafficking.

In addition to lending insight into such threats, Davis also discussed possible policy responses, drawing from the 2016 task force report, #CultureUnderThreat: Recommendations to the U.S. Government, as well as #CultureUnderThreat: Three Years Later, an update published last week by the Antiquities Coalition. The original report called for new policies, practices, and priorities to reduce heritage destruction and looting, end impunity for cultural crimes, and sever this key source of funding for violent extremist groups. The update, published on the three-year anniversary of the original report, details the present status of each original recommendation.

Some recommendations Davis highlighted:

  • Cut off cultural heritage as a source of financing for bad actors. The illicit antiquities trade is demand driven, and no illicit trade has ever been defeated at its source. All states should immediately close their borders to undocumented antiquities from countries in crisis.
  • Because cultural heritage provides an important foundation for national reconciliation and economic recovery, its protection should be incorporated in all peacekeeping mandates and training, as well as post-conflict planning and recovery trust funds.
  • Crimes against culture should be criminally prosecuted along with other atrocity crimes, either through international tribunals or domestic prosecutions, recognizing they are first and foremost attacks against people.

For more information about these recommendations, and to read the full #CultureUnderThreat Task Force report or its update, click here.