“Endangered” heritage sites: Timbuktu and Bethlehem

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UNESCO has named some new “endangered heritage” sites. The designation is intended to highlight and protect sites of great historical significance which are perceived as being threatened with destruction.

One such newly designated site is Timbuktu, in Mali, which includes many ancient shrines to saints of the Sufi strain of Islam. It has indeed been under threat by al-Qaeda-linked Islamists who reject that form of Islam, and who regard the shrines as idolatrous. In response (apparently) to the designation by UNESCO, dozens of these Islamists have arrived in Timbuktu in trucks, armed with AK-47s and pick-axes, and are systematically setting to work to destroy every single saintly mausoleum in the place. One must guess that no one from UNESCO even had time to put up a solitary poster with the “Endangered Heritage Site” designation. (I very much doubt there is anyone from UNESCO within hundreds of miles of Timbuktu right now.)

Destroying such ancient holy sites is a crime against decency and a crime against human culture, without question, but it hasn’t stopped Islamists before. Remember the Buddhist statues that the Taliban dynamited in Afghanistan in 2001. And then stop and consider what the future may hold for Egyptian antiquities, if Islamism achieves complete control in that country.

Meanwhile, UNESCO has also designated Bethlehem’s Church of the Nativity as an endangered heritage site. Why, in this case? The churches who share control of the shrine—Roman Catholic, Armenian and Greek Orthodox—did not request the designation. Bethlehem is in the West Bank, and it was Palestinian officials who petitioned UNESCO for the “endangered” label, and asked for it to be “fast-tracked.” UNESCO quickly obliged. The granting of the “endangered” designation is being celebrated by Palestinians as a slap to the Israeli government, which asserts sovereignty over the area.

Should we now expect Israeli soldiers to pull up in trucks and start sledgehammering the Church of the Nativity in response?

I would guess not. But the Christian churches who oversee the shrine have reason to be worried about the degree to which this new designation will offer a legal pretext for interference in the future from the United Nations and from the Palestinian regime.

One time when the Church of the Nativity certainly was endangered was in 2002, when Palestinian gunmen holed up inside it as way of escaping Israeli troops, causing extensive damage in the process.

I suppose that UNESCO was not on the scene then. Not to worry. I’m sure the “Endangered Heritage Site” plaque that will soon be affixed to the exterior of the Church of the Nativity will prevent any future Islamist thugs from even dreaming of crossing the threshold.

It’s a funny world.