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Gentiloni: «Culture is the helm for smoother sailing in the region’s troubled waters» (The Daily Star)

During my forthcoming visit to Lebanon I will have the pleasure to inaugurate the newly renovated basement pavilions of the National Museum of Beirut, a symbol of Lebanon’s unique mosaic of communities and cultures.

The Italian government had made steady contributions over the years to the preservation of the Lebanese cultural heritage. In the past, Italian archeologists and experts helped to restore the Tomb of Tyro. More recently, under the guidance of Lebanese institutions, my government contributed to the establishment of a new museum space to display the unique resident collection of anthropoid sarcophagi, one of the world archaeological wonders. For the first time, a large number of restored and catalogued funerary artifacts belonging to Lebanon’s rich history are simultaneously on display. This landmark achievement in our cultural partnership is compounded by other Italian-funded projects throughout the country aimed at preserving and highlighting Lebanon’s remarkable archaeological, artistic, cultural and natural heritage.

 Cultural cooperation is just one aspect of the special relationship between our two countries. As the tragic Syrian conflict continues, Italy’s commitment to preserving Lebanon’s unity, security, stability and prosperity is also underpinned by our development aid to Lebanese institutions and hosting communities, by our substantive engagement within UNIFIL, by our support for the capabilities of the Lebanese security forces and – last but not least – by a flourishing economic partnership.  

But why is investment in culture so important? Because it helps to forge more resilient societies, resistant to fanaticism, intolerance, hatred. Italy and Europe are exposed to such evils. So is Lebanon and its neighborhood. We must react. Italy is convinced that the protection of cultural heritage is profoundly intertwined with protecting pluralism and the rights of citizens belonging to ethnic and religious minorities. This is why Italy proposed and UNESCO approved the “Unite4Heritage” initiative in order to conduct emergency interventions in critical areas where local cultural heritage must be protected. If today the most pressing need is defeating Daesh (ISIS), including by resorting to the military option, it will be through culture that the Mediterranean will rediscover its plural history.

On the shores of the Mediterranean we need inclusive states and societies. In this respect, the texture of Lebanon’s history and culture is reflected in its identity. Its unique political system and state institutions guarantee  one Lebanon for each of its different communities. The distinctive political DNA of the Lebanese people – based on mutual respect and a special blend of traditional values and sheer modernity – is the living legacy of centuries of cohabitation, where different communities and individuals have fruitfully interacted. Such a diverse society is the country’s most remarkable and admired asset, and a model for Lebanon ‘s neighbors.  

This is all the more important at this difficult juncture for the Middle East. Crises and divisions are unraveling regional order and stability. They are tearing apart communities and sparking huge migration flows. Countries and peoples around you badly need Lebanon and its voice. They need your capacity to coexist in a democratic system designed to share power fairly. It’ heritage conservation can help us remember where this wealth of wisdom comes from and how to best preserve it, then culture could be the helm for smoother sailing in the region’s troubled waters.