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Heritage of Religious Interest

UNESCO Initiative on Heritage of Religious Interest

© OUR PLACE / Amos Chapple / Samarkand - Crossroad of Cultures

There exist a great variety of religious and sacred sites that are representative of the different cultures and traditions of the world. Approximately 20 percent of the properties inscribed on the World Heritage List have some sort of religious or spiritual connection.

These properties to be found in most countries around the world constitute the largest single category on the List. Specific and significant spiritual meanings are mentioned to justify the Outstanding Universal Value of a large number of the World Heritage properties. Numerous historic cities on the List possess components of religious significance and are recognized as holy cities by different communities.

History and terminology

© Jean-Christophe BENOIST / Vatican, Basilique St Pierre

"As cultures encompass lifestyles, different ways of living together, value systems, traditions and beliefs, the protection and promotion of their rich diversity invite us to rise to new challenges at the local, national and international levels. This will involve integrating the principles of dialogue and mutual knowledge in all policies, particularly education, science, culture and communication policies, in the hope of correcting flawed cultural representations, values and stereotypes."
2010 United Nations International Year for the Rapprochement of Cultures

In recent years UNESCO played a leading role in the development and promotion of a powerful normative action related to the protection of cultural and natural heritage in all its forms.

A corpus of standard-setting documents, including charters and recommendations, exists on the subject of monuments and sites. A number of research studies and analyses of religious heritage and sacred sites were carried out by the Advisory Bodies - ICCROM, ICOMOS and IUCN. There were a number of conclusions and recommendations drawn from previous meetings and activities on religious and sacred heritage, such as the ICCROM 2003 Forum on the conservation of Living Religious Heritage, the 2005 ICOMOS General Assembly resolution calling for the "establishment of an International Thematic Programme for Religious Heritage", and 2011 ICOMOS General  Assembly Resolution on Protection and enhancement of sacred heritage sites, buildings and landscapes, as well as the UNESCO MAB/IUCN Guidelines for the Conservation and Management of Sacred Natural Sites.

Several recommendations directly or indirectly concern the safeguarding of the spirit of place, namely their living, social and spiritual nature, in particular the Nara Document on Authenticity adopted at the Nara Conference on Authenticity in relation to the World Heritage Convention held in 1994 and the Quebec Declaration on the Preservation of the Spirit of Place, adopted at the 16th General Assembly of ICOMOS in 2008.

The term "Religious property", as used in the ICOMOS study "Filling the Gaps - an Action Plan for the Future", defines "any form of property with religious or spiritual associations: churches, monasteries, shrines, sanctuaries, mosques, synagogues, temples, sacred landscapes, sacred groves, and other landscape features, etc.".

The term "Sacred site" embraces areas of special spiritual significance to peoples and communities; and the term of "Sacred natural site" corresponds to the areas of land or water having special spiritual significance to peoples and communities," as proposed by the UNESCO/IUCN Guidelines for the Conservation and Management of Sacred Natural Sites, 2008

According to ICCROM, living religious heritage has characteristics that distinguish it from other forms of heritage. Sacred sites, which, according to the UNESCO MAB Programme, "are indeed the oldest protected areas of the planet", and "have a vital importance for safeguarding cultural and biological diversity for present and future generations." Collectively, the religious and sacred properties capture a range of cultural and natural diversity, and each can singularly demonstrate the spirit of a particular place.

Communities

Religious communities as World Heritage stakeholders

© OUR PLACE / Giora Dan / Lumbini, the Birthplace of the Lord Buddha

Understanding the continuing nature of religious and sacred heritage, having the capacity to protect its authenticity and integrity, including its particular spiritual significance, and sharing the knowledge of our common history, are the three pillars necessary for building mutual respect and dialogue between communities.

Today, the international community should define the appropriate measures to preserve the values of religious and sacred places, which form the foundation of our cultures, thereby aiming to prevent any gradual loss of our traditions.

Within the context of the International Year for the Rapprochement of Cultures 2010, proclaimed by the United Nations General Assembly, an international seminar on the role of religious communities in the management of World Heritage properties was held in Kiev (Ukraine) from 2 to 5 November 2010, under the patronage of the President of Ukraine and UNESCO. For the first time in the history of the World Heritage Convention, the issue regarding the protection of religious and sacred heritage has been discussed at the international level, involving active participation of the religious authorities.

The main objective of this first major international meeting organized under the patronage of UNESCO on heritage of religious interest was to explore ways to reflect the complexity and importance of developing proper dialogue between all stakeholders for the common goal which is protection of World Heritage properties. It was noted that these World Heritage properties - especially living religious and sacred sites - require specific policies for protection and management that take into account their distinct spiritual nature as a key factor in their conservation and that such policies cannot be sustainable without in-depth consultation with the appropriate stakeholders. 

The meeting considered the view that stakeholders need to work together to preserve sacred heritage while regarding the modernization and development of society in a culturally and historically sensitive manner, with a view to strengthening identity and social cohesion. Stakeholders include religious communities, made up of believers, traditional and indigenous peoples, as well as State Party authorities, professionals and experts in relevant fields, property owners, funding bodies and other interested partners.

At the closing of the Seminar, on 5 November 2010, the participants unanimously adopted the following Statement on the protection of religious properties within the framework of the World Heritage Convention. Developed in close collaboration with national authorities, international experts, site managers and representatives of religious communities, is the first and most unique document to give general recommendations on this specific issue.

The final report of the 2010 Seminar has been submitted by the World Heritage Centre within the framework of the secretariat report for consideration by the World Heritage Committee at its 35th session (UNESCO, 2011).

Statement on the Protection of Religious Properties within the Framework of the World Heritage Convention
  1. The main objective of the 2010 Seminar on the Role of Religious Communities in the Management of World Heritage Properties was to explore ways of establishing a dialogue between all stakeholders, and to explore possible ways of encouraging and generating mutual understanding and collaboration amongst them in the protection of religious World Heritage properties.
  2. The stakeholders would include religious communities, which can comprise believers, traditional and indigenous peoples, as well as States Party authorities, professionals and experts in relevant fields, property owners, funding bodies and other interested partners.
  3. The participants of the Seminar welcomed the International Year for the Rapprochement of Cultures, proclaimed by the United Nations General Assembly, as a valuable tool for the mutual exchange of experiences and dialogue between cultures aiming to foster respect for each other's beliefs. 
    They furthermore:
  4. Recognized the role played by religious communities in the creation, maintenance, and continuous shaping of sacred places, and the custodial role played by them in caring for these as living heritage.
  5. Reaffirmed the vital further role of religious communities in conveying, expressing and sustaining spiritual identity, meaning and purpose to human life, considering that these offer significant opportunities in a fast developing and globalizing world, as well as presenting serious challenges.
  6. Stressed that culturally and environmentally sustainable management of such heritage should be the responsibility of all stakeholders concerned, and that mutual acceptance and respect will bring different and complementary perspectives to shared cultural and spiritual values.
  7. Recalled that the protection of religious heritage represents a special challenge and opportunity that needs to be addressed in the effective implementation of the World Heritage Convention, and noted that living religious places have often been placed on UNESCO's World Heritage List specifically for their religious and spiritual significance; in other cases, religious properties and sacred places can be an integral part of larger ensembles, such as historic cities, cultural landscapes and natural sites. The significance of such sites and the interests of associated religious communities should be duly recognized in sustainable management processes.
  8. Emphasized that the continuing nature of religious heritage calls for dialogue and mutual understanding between the religious communities concerned and all other stakeholders, who must work together to preserve the significance of cultural, mixed and natural heritage sites associated with the sacred.
  9. Considered it particularly timely to define an Integrated Strategy for the development of a World Heritage Thematic Programme on religious heritage in collaboration and close coordination between all stakeholders, and that this Programme should create an action plan for the protection of religious heritage world-wide aimed at enhancing the role of communities and the avoidance of misunderstandings, tensions, or stereotypes.
  10. Recognized the need to raise awareness of all stakeholders of the importance of the management of religious places in order to enable mutual understanding and acceptance of the World Heritage significance and specificity of each heritage place, and its associated spiritual and religious values.
  11. In furtherance of this, and taking into account the resolution 17 GA 9 of the States Parties to the World Heritage Convention, they called for the establishment of integrated and interactive training programmes in the management of religious places in cooperation with the Advisory Bodies, ICCROM, ICOMOS and IUCN, aimed at helping representatives of religious communities to enhance and share their managerial skills.
  12. Concluded that safeguarding religious heritage of outstanding universal value for future generations requires new forms of action, and that the Kyiv seminar formed the start of a new ongoing process, and an opportunity to establish a platform for dialogue and shared knowledge among all communities involved in the preservation of our common heritage.

Kyiv, 5 November 2010

Strategy

Integrated Implementation Strategy

© OUR PLACE / Amos Chapple / Mahabodhi Temple Complex at Bodh Gaya

The World Heritage Committee requested the World Heritage Centre, in collaboration with the Advisory Bodies, to elaborate a thematic paper proposing to States Parties general guidance regarding the management of their cultural and natural heritage of religious interest, and in compliance with the national specificities, inviting States Parties to provide voluntary contributions to this end.

paragraph 7, Decision 35 COM 5A

 Read the full text 

UNESCO, by launching the Initiative on heritage of religious interest further to this World Heritage Committee decision, plays a leading role in the development, in close collaboration with the Advisory Bodies, of the thematic paper proposing to State Parties general guidance regarding the management of cultural and natural heritage of religious interest. In the long-term, this initiative is intended to help integrate a number of guiding principles into cultural policies at the local, national, regional and international levels so as to contribute to the rapprochement of cultures and harmonious relations among peoples.

Further to the consultation process between the World Heritage Centre and the Advisory Bodies, the elaboration of the thematic paper will be ensured in three phases: (i) preparatory and fund-raising activities; (ii) research, global thematic survey and data analysis; (iii) consultation/production of thematic paper. The World Heritage Centre and the Advisory Bodies recommended the establishment of a Group, which will be in charge of this activity, comprising representatives of UNESCO and the Advisory Bodies, and in particular experts of the IUCN Specialist Group on Cultural and Spiritual Values of Protected Areas, of the ICCROM Programme on Living Heritage and ICOMOS group of experts specialized in protection and enhancement of sacred heritage sites, buildings and landscapes. Extract from the working document WHC-12/36.COM/5A.1 

Integrated Implementation Strategy
The Integrated Implementation Strategy document is developed jointly by the Steering Group on Heritage of Religious Interest, established by the World Heritage Centre and the Advisory Bodies ICOMOS, ICCROM, IUCN.

It outlines the main objectives, identifies main expertise needs, defines target audiences, lists its guiding principles and expected results (outcomes), as well as suggests a number of core activities to be carried out within the three phases of the general guidance development.

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Global network

© B. Doucin & L. Lalait / Meteora

The World Heritage Centre and the Advisory Bodies recommend the creation of a global network involving relevant stakeholders, such as heritage practitioners (through Advisory Bodies), policy makers, national and local authorities, representatives of traditional and religious communities which should ensure that the thematic paper takes into account all relevant studies, elements, global trends and national specificities.

Extract from the working document WHC-12/36.COM/5A.1 

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Call for Contributions

© Our Place / Historic Centre of Bukhara

The States Parties and international partners are invited to provide their financial support to the World Heritage Centre for the coordination of the elaboration of the thematic paper, as well as for the following activities and projects.

The World Heritage Centre requested the States Parties by a circular letter (CL/WHC-11/20) to support the implementation of the World Heritage Committee's decision and the associated research by providing voluntary contributions, as well as by organizing meetings, conferences and seminars within its framework.




Research

The multidisciplinary research programme proposal is developed in support to the elaboration, by the World Heritage Centre/Advisory Bodies Steering Group, of a thematic paper proposing to the States Parties to the World Heritage Convention general guidance regarding management of cultural and natural heritage of religious interest, requested by the World Heritage Committee.

This research programme could be proposed to be implemented by the relevant UNESCO Chairs specialized in the domain of World Heritage and Intercultural / Interreligious Dialogue. 

 Research Topics 




Database

The principal objective of the Keyword Research System project is to inventor, by creation of a database of all World Heritage properties of religious interest, both the major threats to which the World Heritage properties of religious interest are exposed and the shortcomings in their management systems.

This system is one of the main tools necessary for the elaboration of a thematic paper proposing to States Parties the general guidance regarding the management of cultural and natural heritage of religious interest, requested by the Committee.

 Project 




Regional Thematic Consultations

In 2013, it was announced by the World Heritage Centre, that a cycle of Thematic Consultations should be launched world-wide, through a selected sample of representative case studies, for addressing sustainable management and use of properties of religious interest. 

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Capacity Building Workshop

The main objective of the Capacity-building workshop is to increase awareness and reinforce involvement of religious communities in the implementation of the World Heritage Convention.

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Meetings of the Steering Group

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ICOMOS Thematic study

ICOMOS Thematic study on sites with associative values, such as sacred sites, requested by the World Heritage Committee (Decision 36 COM 13.I, paragraph 5)

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Contribute

The States Parties and international partners wishing to provide voluntary contributions to the activities and projects or, in general, to the Initiative on Heritage of Religious Interest, are invited to transmit to the World Heritage Centre their letters of intention specifying the project/activity for which the support will be provided.

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Decisions (3)
Show 37COM 5A
Show 36COM 5A.1
Show 35COM 5A