CNEWA

CNEWA Connections: Sacred Spaces

Every year — this year on 18 July — Jews throughout the world observe Tisha B’Av, “the Ninth of (the Hebrew month of) Av. On Tisha B’Av Jews recall the destruction of the Temple of Solomon by the Babylonians in 586 B.C., and the destruction of the Second Temple by the Romans in A.D. 70. According to Jewish tradition, both occurred on the same day some 656 years apart. The destruction of the temples was a traumatic event for the Jews.

The destruction of sacred places by a hostile conqueror was and remains a fairly common thing, even today. In the Bible, the Israelites engaged in destroying sacred places they found contrary to their religion. King Josiah of Judah is recorded as having destroyed sacred places considered unorthodox by the Zadokite priesthood in Jerusalem (2 Kgs 23:4-20).

Throughout history, conquerors have either destroyed or re-purposed the sacred places of the vanquished. When Constantinople fell to the Ottoman Turks under Mehmet the Conqueror in 1453, the victorious Turks turned the Byzantine royal basilica of Hagia Sophia into a mosque. After the fall of the Ottoman Empire, Attatürk, the secularizing founder of modern Turkey, turned the mosque into museum. The present president of Turkey, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, reinstated Hagia Sophia as a mosque in July 2020, despite the widespread disapproval of much of the world.

This pattern continues, even in the 21st century. In 2001, the giant sixth- to seventh-century sculptures of the Buddha in Bamiyan, Afghanistan, were destroyed by the Taliban’s cannon fire and explosives.

It seems sacred spaces would have a special place in international law and, to some extent, they do. Unfortunately, that place is yet unclear and needs further, significant development.

Although one often hears of “cultural genocide” — a term used by Raphael Lemkin in 1944 — as part of his definition of genocide. Surprisingly, this term has not been officially accepted. 

The Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide (UNGA Res 260 A (III) 9 December 1948) carefully delineates what it considers genocide, and there is no reference to sacred spaces.

As it stands, sacred spaces are considered in law to be part of cultural heritage and they are governed more or less by the World Heritage Convention. This convention speaks of “sites that possess ‘outstanding universal value’ ” and as such “need to be preserved as part of the world heritage of mankind as a whole.” These include “monuments… which are of outstanding universal value from the point of view of history, art or science.” 

The Nabi Yunus mosque pictured prior to its destruction. In its nearly 1,500-year history, the site hosted an ancient Assyrian temple and palace, a site for Jewish devotion, a shrine of the Assyrian Church of the East, and, as of the 12th century, a mosque. The structure served as a strong symbol of the historic interconnectedness of the Jewish, Christian and Muslim religions in Iraq. (photo: WikiCommons/Roland Unger)

Although there is mention of an “intangible cultural heritage,” there is considerable emphasis on what is referred to as a “European-inspired monumentalist vision.” Given the fact that much of the history of international law has revolved around events in Europe or has involved Europeans, a one-sidedness to the understanding of “sacred places” is noticeable. 

However, sacred space protection is often not so much connected with “outstanding universal value” as with the holy site of a particular group that has a spiritual connection to the place. What this understanding of sacred space requires is a shift from an emphasis on “sovereign property and historical preservation” to taking into account “landscapes and natural areas.” This shift is extremely important because it recognizes that, while sacred spaces are often connected with buildings or monuments, such is not always the case. In fact, with many Indigenous religions, rarely are architectural structures involved.

Some sites are considered universally sacred places, such as the statues at Bamiyan, European Gothic cathedrals and the Temple at Luxor. Other sites, lacking a structure and of fairly local significance, such as the natural rock formation of Uluru, or Ayers Rock, in Australia or the Canyon de Chelly in Arizona, are profoundly sacred for Indigenous Peoples. Such sacred sites can be found all over the world, some with buildings, but many without.

The protection of sacred sites in international law is still at the initial stages of development and faced with many challenges: the definition and official description of what a holy site is, how the inviolability of sacred sites is enforced and by whom, the relation between tangible and intangible in human heritage. The legal and intellectual challenges are many and daunting.

However, the need for protection of holy sites under international law is pressing. In Iraq, where CNEWA has been engaged even before the onset of the crisis caused by ISIS and war, the destruction of the Yazidi enclave of Mount Sinjar, of Christian churches in the country’s northwest, and of the Nabi Yunus Mosque, revered by both Muslims and Christians, in Mosul are just three examples of the destruction of major holy sites within the last five to seven years. 

It is probably widely assumed that protection of sacred sites is clear and well established in international law. That is, unfortunately, not yet the case. It is something to which we need to remain attentive.           

It is not, however, even remotely an academic exercise. Even when a sacred site is not well known, architecturally significant or of historical importance, the destruction of that site brings with it a coarsening of the spirit that impoverishes all humanity.


A Franciscan Friar of the Atonement, Father Elias Mallon is the external affairs officer for CNEWA.

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