The head of the lead United Nations agency on education and culture has added her voice to those expressing concern at Israel's announcement that it is adding two holy sites in occupied Palestinian territory to its list of national heritage sites.
Israel says it is adding the tombs of the biblical patriarch Abraham in Hebron and the biblical matriarch Rachel in Bethlehem to its list of national heritage sites, sparking concern from Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and the UN Special Coordinator for the Middle East Peace Process, Robert Serry, who warned against moves that could prejudice the resumption of peace talks.
Irina Bokova, Director-General of the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), endorsed Mr. Serry's view that these sites are “of historical and religious significance not only to Judaism but also to Islam, and to Christianity as well.”
She reiterated UNESCO's long-standing conviction that cultural heritage should serve as a means for dialogue, according to a news release issued by the Paris-based agency.
Mr. Ban discussed the issue with the Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Defense of Israel, Ehud Barak, when the two met earlier this week in New York. The Secretary-General voiced regret at certain recent developments on the ground, including Israel's announcement about the holy sites.
Mr. Serry also discussed the issue with Israeli President Shimon Peres, who assured him that Israel intended to fully respect religious rights in places of worship.
UNESCO has been mandated by its member States to provide assistance to the Palestinian Authority in the fields of education and culture. It has been working with the Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities of the Palestinian Authority and Palestinian civil society to protect and preserve the cultural heritage sites in the West Bank and is committed to continue doing so, the agency stated.
The Director-General is committed to strengthening “UNESCO's financial and technical assistance to the Palestinian educational and cultural institutions in order to address new needs and problems resulting from recent developments,” it added.