Secretary Kerry Delivers Remarks on Threats to Cultural Heritage in Iraq and Syria

SECRETARY KERRY: Tom, thank you very, very
much for hosting us all here at this rather remarkable gathering in this absolutely extraordinary
location, for which we thank the Egyptians for their generosity and Augustus for his
creativity. It’s a pretty special backdrop for anybody. For decades – it’s a privilege for me to be
able to be here with all of you, and particularly to break away from a day of dealing with the
realities of the policies behind what is happening here, and very, very special for me to come
to this museum – which I’ve had the pleasure of coming to as a civilian just to walk through
and enjoy, as so many of you do – this remarkable institution that has given millions of people
the opportunity to learn about our collective past and to share some of the finest examples
of human achievement on the planet. Later this evening, all of you will have a
chance to see many of those achievements firsthand at the groundbreaking exhibition, “Assyria
to Iberia at the Dawn of the Classical Age.” And Tom, we can’t thank you enough for your
leadership. It’s extraordinary. I also want to thank Emily Rafferty. Emily’s
historic tenure as the president of the Met has made everybody in the country proud. Few
people have done more or fought harder to make this museum and the treasures that it
holds accessible to all of the public. That is an enduring conviction, and Emily will
leave behind her an enduring legacy when she retires next year after an extraordinary four
decades of service here. And I think everybody would join in saying thank you for that. (Applause.) I also want
to thank Professor Michael Danti for shining
a light on what is without question a global, critical challenge. And I’m particularly glad
that he hails from Boston and came down here tonight. Thank you. When it comes to elevating
the fight to protect the cultural heritage of Iraq and Syria, Michael and his colleagues
at the American Schools of Oriental Research are literally the gold standard. And Michael
was the first American archeologist in more than half a century to gain access to the
Zagros Mountains, and that’s the Iraqi Kurdistan Region along the Turkish and Iranian border.
And he traveled to Syria for more than two decades, right up until the conflict erupted,
researching Syria’s ancient heritage. And we are all profoundly grateful for his commitment.
And I must say, in the last 29 years that I served in the United States Senate, I went
to Damascus a number of times and to Syria, and I cringe at what is happening now, and
particularly to an extraordinary place like Aleppo. It’s my pleasure to be here with President
Hadi al-Bahra, the – of the Iraqi opposition coalition – Syrian Opposition Coalition. It’s
a long day. (Laughter.) Director-General Irina Bokova of UNESCO; Elizabeth Duggal, the chair
of the U.S. Committee of the International Council of Museums; Bonnie Burnham, the president
of the World Monuments Fund; and Dr. Zaki Aslan, the director of the International Center
for the Study of Preservation’s Regional Conservation Center in Sharjah. Now I’m going to pick up where Tom began,
and I’m not going to mince words. We gather in the midst of one of the most tragic and
one of the most outrageous assaults on our shared heritage that perhaps any of us have
seen in a lifetime. Ancient treasures in Iraq and in Syria have now become the casualties
of continuing warfare and looting. And no one group has done more to put our shared
cultural heritage in the gun sights than ISIL. ISIL is not only beheading individuals; it
is tearing at the fabric of whole civilizations. It has no respect for life. It has no respect
for religion. And it has no respect for culture, which for millions is actually the foundation
of life. Far from hiding their destruction of churches and mosques, they broadcast these,
purposefully and with pride, for all the world to see their act of depravity and for all
of us to be intimidated and to perhaps back off from our values. For the proud people
of Iraq and Syria – ancient civilizations, civilizations of great beauty, great accomplishment,
of extraordinary history and intellectual achievement – the destruction of their heritage
is a purposeful final insult, and another example of ISIL’s implacable evil. ISIL is
stealing lives, yes, but it’s also stealing the soul of millions. How shocking and historically shameful it
would be if we did nothing while the forces of chaos rob the very cradle of our civilization.
So many different traditions trace their roots back to this part of the world, as we all
know. This is the first thing many of us learned in school. The looting of Apamea and Dura
Europos, the devastation caused by fighting in the ancient UNESCO heritage city of Aleppo,
the destruction of the Tomb of Jonah – these appalling acts aren’t just a tragedy for the
Syrian and the Iraqi people. These acts of vandalism are a tragedy for all civilized
people, and the civilized world must take a stand. So what is really at stake here? When you
walk around the exhibit and you see the limestone reliefs from Assyria or the Syro-Hittite sculptures,
you get up close and personal reminders of the power of human creation. Each artifact
tells a story – a human story, our story. But we also know this: When ISIL destroys
dozens of shrines in Mosul or the historic lion statues in Raqqa, when Assad’s forces
shell the Roman Temple of Bel in Palmyra or care more about regaining territory in Aleppo
than protecting its ancient treasures, we are all bearing witness to cultural barbarism
at its worst – ugly, savage, inexplicable, valueless barbarism. It’s not just that the
forces of extremism threaten to take us back to the Stone Age. Extremists want to rob future
generations of any connection to this past. That is profoundly what is at stake. And if
you leave it unstopped, if you don’t stand up, we are all complicit. I want you to know that President Obama and
our Administration are laser-focused on protecting the cultural heritage of countries all around
the world. That is why we’re funding a landmark effort with the American Schools of Oriental
Research to document the condition of cultural heritage sites in Syria. And we’re providing
additional support to extend this effort into Iraq. We’re also doubling down on our support
for Iraqi conservation experts and providing them with critical training on emergency documentation
and disaster preparedness and response at the Iraqi Institute for the Conservation of
Antiquities and Heritage. Through the National Science Foundation, we’re
partnering with the American Association for the Advancement of Science on a project that
uses geospatial technologies to track the destruction of the historical sites in Syria.
They just released a big study that proves the destruction of these sites publicly. And
this is yet another wakeup call, and those who deny the evidence or choose excuses over
action are playing with fire as a consequence. Our heritage is literally in peril in this
moment, and we believe it is imperative that we act now. We do so knowing that our leadership,
the leadership of the United States, can make a difference and that the fight to protect
the cultural heritage of Iraq and Syria isn’t just about shared values. It’s about protecting
a shared legacy. And that is the story that I want to leave you with this evening. The Tomb of Jonah that I mentioned a moment
ago was a sacred place in Mosul for Jews, Christians, and Muslims. It was a symbol of
tolerance, and a powerful reminder of the traditions that we all share. In its perverse
reality, ISIL saw the Tomb and the Nabi Younes Mosque that housed it – they saw it as a threat.
So they ringed the mosque with explosives and literally turned it into dust. When he
saw the destruction, a local man named Omar summed up the reaction in Mosul. He said,
“We cried for it with our blood.” Those are the stakes, and this is our world
– our world: ISIS forces the people of Iraq and Syria to pay for their cultural heritage
in blood. We are determined instead to help Iraqis and Syrians protect and preserve their
heritage in peace. That’s our common responsibility. And that is why the cause of conscience and
conviction in our cause for action in Iraq and Syria today is so important. Thank you for being part of this tonight,
this reminder of our values and this reminder of our connectedness, and reminder of our
responsibility. Thank you. (Applause.)

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