(As prepared for delivery)
Good evening Ambassador Sarhan, Ambassador Gouia, distinguished members of the League of Arab States and Arab-American community, and other honored guests, it is a pleasure to be with you this evening.
I am proud to represent the U.S. Department of State, and especially the Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs, as we celebrate the rich and diverse cultural heritage of the Arab world this evening.
Arab world contributions to the arts and sciences over the centuries have expanded our understanding and increased our appreciation of the world and of our place in it.
Contributions in disciplines as diverse as astronomy, horticulture, mathematics, medicine, philosophy, and, of course, the arts, continue to enrich our lives.
The Kasbah of Algiers, the Medina of Fez and its ancient university in Morocco, and the historic wonders of Carthage in Tunisia, Baalbek in Lebanon, and Babylon in Iraq, endure as outstanding examples of monumental architecture and traditional urban planning.
Through the State Department’s Ambassadors Fund for Cultural Preservation, we have had the honor and privilege to work with League of Arab States Members on over 100 projects to preserve and protect cultural heritage in the region.
These projects have been as diverse as the cultural heritage of the Arab world itself – from the preservation of manuscripts in Mauritania, to the restoration of ancient water systems in Bethlehem, to stabilization efforts at the iconic site of Petra in southern Jordan.
We are also committed to working with League of Arab States members to prevent the pillage and trafficking of these priceless and irreplaceable objects of cultural heritage.
One of the best tools we have at our disposal are bilateral cultural property agreements. Such agreements impose U.S. import restrictions on cultural property from countries at risk, thus deterring illegal looting and trafficking of such items from their sites of origin into U.S. markets.
In 2016, Egypt became the first Arab nation to enter into an agreement with the United States, formalizing a long and continuing history of cooperation between our two countries in the area of cultural property protection and preservation.
We look forward to concluding an agreement with the Government of Libya soon and welcome the opportunity to explore further agreements with interested Arab partners who feel their tangible cultural heritage may be at risk.
We have taken emergency action to impose import restrictions on antiquities from Libya, and from Syria and Iraq, to help ensure that the traces of the earliest civilizations – and the art and literature they contain – can be recovered and enjoyed by all in the country of their origin.
Through these bilateral agreements and our support of preservation and protection training activities and projects, the U.S. government is demonstrating its commitment to safeguarding invaluable cultural heritage for future generations and to partnering with countries of the Arab world in this important effort.
I commend the League of Arab States for choosing the important and urgent topic of protecting and preserving cultural heritage in the Arab world for this evening’s gathering.
We know all too well the fragile nature of many cultural sites across the region and the existential threat posed by ISIS and other terrorist organizations.
A U.S.-led Global Coalition, working with effective and dedicated local partners, has pushed ISIS out of the territories it occupied in Iraq and Syria.
As ISIS’s control over territory has crumbled, we and our partners in the international community are working to support the rehabilitation and preservation of cultural heritage sites in areas ISIS wreaked its destruction and havoc.
Cherished heritage sites, including Palmyra in Syria, the Nimrud Palace and the al-Tahira Church in Iraq, as well as precious artifacts from the Mosul Museum have been ransacked and pillaged, to name only a few tragic examples.
ISIS and other terrorists have made particular efforts to eradicate sites belonging to religious and ethnic minorities, an attempt to extinguish the identity of targeted communities and erase evidence of past diversity and religious pluralism.
The United States has sponsored programs for religious leaders and NGOs in order to understand specific preservation needs and assist in mitigation of the impact of terrorism and conflict on the cultural, historic and artistic heritage of religious minorities.
We are also working closely with the Iraqi government and the Smithsonian Institution to support heritage protection efforts in liberated areas of Iraq, including training of local preservation experts at the Iraqi Institute of Conservation of Antiquities and Heritage in Erbil as well as providing support to a stabilization project at Nimrud and a heritage-at-risk monitoring project in Iraq, Syria and Libya.
We thank our partners for joining us in the important work of protecting and preserving the rich and diverse cultural heritage of the Arab World, which speaks so compellingly to our universal humanity and shared history.