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Russia offers assistance to Syria in safeguarding cultural heritage from Islamists

October 09, 2015, 10:54 UTC+3 PARIS

One of the variants suggested is to organize evacuation of historic artefacts from the Syrian territory by planes of the Russian Emergencies Ministry

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PARIS, October 9. /TASS/. Russia is ready to offer assistance to Syria in safeguarding the cultural values from the Islamists, head of the delegation of the Imperial Orthodox Palestinian Society Sergey Stepashin told TASS on Friday.

The delegation came to France, where its representative had meetings with UNESCO’s secretary general and with ambassadors of the Middle East countries to the international organization.

"We have discussed the problem of ruining of the cultural heritage in Syria," head of the Russian delegation said. "Realistically speaking, it is ruining of a civilization."

He said the Islamic militants in the Middle East are focused on fighting religious societies, including the Orthodox one.

"It is a true genocide of Christians in the Middle East," he said.

More than 90 ancient Orthodox churches in Syria have been destroyed forever. Unique historic and religious artefacts. For example, in Syria’s Homs there is the Belt of the Virgin - a priceless relic for millions of Christians worldwide.

"Nowadays, we speak a lot about necessary keeping of cultural heritage, and we are pleased our position was welcomed with support at the UNESCO," he said. "However, the international efforts are not sufficient as yet. Russia is prepared to get involved realistically in this work. We have enough opportunities, means and expertise."

The Russian activist discussed the issue with UNESCO’s Director-General Irina Bokova and with Syria’s ambassador to the organization. One of the variants he suggested was that Russia is ready to organize evacuation of historic artefacts from the Syrian territory by planes of the Russian emergencies ministry.

"The destination country is not bound to be Russia; as this fact may be used by spiteful critics ready to accuse us of appropriation," he said. "That could be a third country, chosen in consultations; a country, where the relics would be safe to the end of the military conflict."

He said the practice of the kind "only recently has been used widely in Europe."

The issue will become a key discussion at the sidelines of the IV St. Petersburg international culture forum, due in December, he said, adding director of St. Petersburg’s Hermitage museum, a well-known historian and orientalist is a member of the Society. "Academician [Mikhail] Piotrovsky and his staff are ready to join the collective work with international experts on analysis of the cultural heritage in Syria, which is under threat now."

Historic values go to black market

UNESCO’s Director-General Irina Bokova several times expressed concern over destruction of cultural values in Syria.

The international organization says the black market nowadays already has many historic values from the Middle East. Museums are ruined, and ancient artefacts are sold to private collectors, UNESCO’s director-general said, and the money from deals is used to finance the Islamic groups: to buy arms and equipment, to pay money to the militants.

In May, terrorists seized Palmyra — a most rich city in late Antique, located between Damascus and the Euphrates, and began ruining the historical objects there, which are 2,000 years old, including the famous Temple of Bel, which was built in 32 AD. A week earlier, the militants ruined the Arch of Triumph in Palmyra. The Arch was dated II century AD.

"The Islamic State is black plague of the XXI century," head of the Russian delegation said. "The international community seems not to realize it as yet. This is why UNESCO should become a platform for the truth — the truth about what is happening now in Syria and in Iraq."

The Russian society is offering assistance to the international organization. In early 2016, it may be given a consultation status at the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization.

The Imperial Orthodox Palestinian Society, a charitable scientific organization. It was created in 1882 on the initiative of Grand Prince Sergei Alexandrovich (president for life) with the purpose of supporting Orthodoxy in the Holy Land (including Syria and Lebanon), acquaintance of Russians with the Palestine and pilgrimage to the Holy Land.

The Palestinian Society erected churches and hostels in the Holy Land, supported teacher seminaries, schools, ambulance stations and hospitals. The Society negotiated preferential passing duties for pilgrims due to which many thousands of Orthodox believers from Russia could visit the Holy Land annually. The Palestinian Society also carried out archaeological excavations, scientific expeditions, published hagiographies of Palestinian saints, descriptions and guides of the Holy Land.

The society now functions abroad under the original name along with the Jerusalem Spiritual Mission of the Moscow Patriarchate taking care of Russian Churches and Institutions in the Holy Land. In 1992, it was restored to its former status in Russia.

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