The United States remains committed to protecting religious minorities – their communities and their culture – worldwide.
“This as an important expression of the values of the United States in that we want to protect diversity of thought and belief,” said Knox Thames, Special Advisor for Religious Minorities in the Near East and South/Central Asia.
This effort, said Special Advisor Thames, is of great importance in Syria and Iraq, where ISIL or DAESH seek to wipe out much of civilizational history:
“In that work we saw where DAESH was committing genocidal acts against Christians, Yezidis and Shia Muslims. At the same time that they were killing people, they were also trying to erase any evidence that they ever existed – destroying their churches, their mosques, their cemeteries. And if we were going to defeat DAESH militarily, we also need to take steps to protect the places that matter to these people – that they are also trying to exterminate. And so, from that work we started focusing on the cultural heritage of religious minorities.”
The U.S. State Department partnered with the Smithsonian Institution to engage religious minority groups directly, providing them with training and information on preserving cultural sites and objects that are at risk. Some of these preventative methods are simple, but effective said Special Advisor Thames:
“There was a training that went on in northern Syria, where churches were trained about how to stack sand bags in front of ancient frescos and murals so that if a mortar shell were to land, the explosive force would be dissipated by the sand bags – it wouldn’t hurt the mural. And they had these very striking before and after pictures of a room full of sandbags, the bomb tragically hit, the sand bags are exploded but the mural is fine.
Trainings also include information on protecting movable artifacts by creating digital documentation of the items that can be stored remotely. The Smithsonian Institute has created a special outreach program in Erbil, Iraq, that is dedicated to the effort.
“These communities that are so unique, that create this mosaic of culture and religion,” said Special Advisor Thames. “They can be pieced back together and protecting their common culture can be a way to do that.”