UNITED NATIONS – The United Nations warned Wednesday that ancient Christian and Muslim sites in Syria are under attack and demanded an immediate halt to the destruction of the country's cultural heritage.
U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, UNESCO Director-General Irina Bokova and the joint U.N.-Arab League mediator on Syria, Lakhdar Brahimi, issued a joint statement citing "alarming reports" that Syria's heritage is being deliberately targeted for ideological reasons.
"Human representations in art are being destroyed by extremist groups intent on eradicating unique testimonies of Syria's rich cultural diversity," the officials said. "Archaeological sites are being systematically looted and the illicit trafficking of cultural objects has reached unprecedented levels."
The officials condemned the use of cultural sites for military purposes and called on all parties in the three-year conflict to uphold international obligations to protect cultural property.
Six sites in Syria have been designated as World Heritage sites by UNESCO, the U.N.'s cultural and educational agency, and the officials said some have suffered "considerable and sometimes irreversible damage."
They said four World Heritage sites are being used for military purposes or have been transformed into battlefields: the desert oasis of Palmyra, a cultural center of the ancient world; the Crac des Chevaliers near the Lebanese border, one of the most important military castles in history, dating between the 11th and 13th century; the Saint Simeon Church in the Ancient Villages of Northern Syria; and Aleppo, one of the world's oldest continuously inhabited cities, and its citadel.
"The destruction of such precious heritage gravely affects the identity and history of the Syrian people and all humanity, damaging the foundations of society for many years to come," the officials said.
They stressed that efforts to save Syria's culture must be part of wider efforts to end violence and promote peace.
"Destroying the inheritance of the past robs future generations of a powerful legacy, deepens hatred and despair and undermines all attempts to foster reconciliation," they said. "The protection of cultural heritage, both tangible and intangible, is inseparable from the protection of human lives, and should be an integral part of humanitarian and peacebuilding efforts."