John Moore/AP
al-Askari mosque

In Times of War, Can Cultural Relics Be Saved?

October 08, 2008 02:00 PM
by Sarah Amandolare
Restoration efforts are underway at Iraq’s al-Askari mosque, but the relic’s disrepair raises important questions regarding protection of cultural monuments during war.

The al-Askari Fallout

Officials hope that rebuilding an ancient shrine in Samarra, Iraq could trigger improved relations between Shiites and Sunnis. The al-Askari mosque was bombed by militants in Feb. 2006, and the attack led to “a wave of sectarian bloodshed,” according to Reuters. But violence has largely subsided, allowing focus to shift toward restoring the mosque within the next few years.

“We are working 24/7 to get it finished,” said Mahmoud Khalaf, the mayor of Samarra.

Efforts to rebuild the shrine were underway in April 2008, with both Shiites and Sunnis manning checkpoints, reported ABC News. Local residents were hopeful that restoring the mosque would in turn restore the economy, and some were already in line to apply for jobs helping out with the shrine’s reconstruction.

Despite the promise of reconstruction, the destruction of the shrine indicates a shift from previous wars in which leaders tried to “spare cultural property from damage whenever possible,” according to the Getty Conservation Institute (GCI) newsletter.

For example, during World War II, General Dwight D. Eisenhower requested that his commanders in Italy “respect” the country’s cultural monuments “so far as war allows.” Later, in 1954, world leaders gathered for the Hague Convention for the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict to discuss how to prevent “losses of cultural heritage,” such as those occurring in previous conflicts, said the GCI newsletter.

In Iraq, some have spoken out in defense of the nation’s cultural riches. In The Wall Street Journal, Caroline B. Glick writes, “concerned archaeologists should be advising the U.S. on how best to preserve our ancient roots in a post-Saddam Iraq.”

Others, however, contend that the United States should not take responsibility for repairing religious relics outside its own borders. Congressman Tom Tancredo, R-Colo., encouraged Muslim nations to take charge of reconstructing the al-Askari Mosque. “Only in this hyper politically correct environment would we use public funds—taken from taxpayers’ wallets—to rebuild Muslim buildings half way around the world at the same time that we’ve made it illegal to post the Ten Commandments in public buildings right here,” Tancredo said.

Background: Attacks on Iraq’s cultural property

In Feb. 2006, British Prime Minister Tony Blair spoke out against the bomb attack on the al-Askari shrine. According to the BBC, “violent protests” stemming from the attack resulted in 100 deaths, which Iraqi leaders feared could lead to civil war. Blair called the destruction of the shrine “an act of desperation, as well as an act of desecration.”

An article originally published in the Contemporary Review examined the issue of attacks on cultural property, particularly in Iraq, including “measures to protect cultural property.” Ultimately, the author feels the issue “has not received enough attention,” and requires further legislation and involvement of “the artistic, archaeological and international law communities … peace and environmental groups” and the media to raise international awareness of the issue.

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