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'Cultural cleansing': Ukraine's heritage is in danger, UNESCO warns

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Snow covers the city centre with a Christmas tree, St. Sophia Cathedral in Kyiv, December 2021
Snow covers the city centre with a Christmas tree, St. Sophia Cathedral in Kyiv, December 2021   -   Copyright  AP Photo/Efrem Lukatsky
By Daniel Bellamy  with AP

The UN's cultural agency has warned that major historical sites in Ukraine are in danger of being damaged and even destroyed as Russia continues its offensive.

"City centres are seriously damaged, some of which have sites and monuments that date back to the 11th century," Lazare Eloundou, UNESCO's World Heritage Director said, speaking from Paris.

"Today, museums are damaged, some with collections inside. There are also cultural venues that are damaged. It is a whole cultural life that risks disappearing."

The deliberate destruction of a country's or culture's heritage is a war crime.

UNESCO says the targeting of cultural sites has evolved into a tactic of war to damage and attempt to destroy societies over a prolonged period.

And in an address to the UN Security Council in 2015, UNESCO's former Director-General Irina Bokova described it as "cultural cleansing".

UNESCO urges Russia to refrain from targeting cultural sites

Ukraine and Russia have close cultural and religious ties, but since Russia first invaded Ukraine in 2014, a partial schism has developed between the Orthodox Churches of both countries.

In 2019, the Orthodox Church of Ukraine was granted independence by the Ecumenical Patriarch in Istanbul.

It marked a historic split from Russia, which Ukrainian leaders saw then and still see today as vital to the country's security.

The decree, known as Tomos, has pressured Ukrainian clerics to choose between the Russian-supported Ukrainian churches and the new church.

The Ukrainian church had been under Moscow's patriarchate for centuries, but since Ukraine became independent in 1991, tensions accumulated and then intensified in 2014 with the Russian annexation of Crimea.

With these political and religious tensions in mind, UNESCO's World Heritage Director Lazare Eloundou is particularly worried as fighting nears Kyiv.

"A site which for us is of great concern in the city of Kyiv, which is a World Heritage Site. This site has two very important ensembles: the St. Sophia Cathedral and also the Lavra monastic complex. These two places are testimony to the birth of the Russian Orthodox Church."

Eloundou has urged all UNESCO member states -- including Russia -- not to target any cultural sites.

"It is important that, when hostilities are launched, countries mark with this sign, this emblem, their most important historical sites so that they are well identified, clearly visible and are not targeted. This is what we have recommended to the Ukrainian authorities to do for their sites."

Meanwhile, Russian cultural officials have asked for major works of art that are currently on loan to galleries in Milan to be returned.

They include Renaissance artist Titian's "Young Woman with the Feathered Hat," which belongs to the Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg.

Italy's Culture Minister Dario Franceschini said earlier this week that "it seems evident that when the owner asks for their works to be returned, they must be returned."

The ministry said it is currently surveying what Italian works of art are on loan to Russian museums.