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Baghdad, IRAQ - Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki attended the inaugural re-opening of Iraq’s National Museum. “The opening is another sign of Iraq’s stabilization,” says Thair Yatooma, of the Iraqi Citizen Council of Art, an advisory group of the National Museum. “The opening of the National Museum in Baghdad is a message from the government to foreign tourists: you are welcome."
The Prime Minister cut the ribbon at the official reopening saying, "We have ended the black wind (of violence) and have started the reconstruction process." This morning, the first tourists entered the museum: for now, only guided tours for groups are allowed; it will take time to reopen the museum to private citizens.
However, some say the Museum must bring the Christian history of Iraq back into the light. The National Museum had a long standing policy of prohibiting any display of Christian art to the general public. The section dedicated to the Christian community could be visited only by foreign tourists; it was not accessible to Arab Iraqis. “The Christian presence is profound, deeply grounded, setting down roots over centuries; Saddam Hussein may have protected it, he always concealed it from the eyes of ordinary citizens" says Yatooma.
The museum, was sacked soon after the American invasion in March of 2003, and had remained closed since then. The sacking of the National Museum perpetrated by vandals and art traffickers - before the indifferent eyes of the American army - was one of the signs of the failure of the U.S. post-invasion strategy. More than 15,000 works of art were destroyed or stolen by foreign collectors.
Efforts by the international community have permitted the recovery of about half of the materials, but UNESCO estimates say that about 7,000 objects are still missing, 50% of which have immense historical and artistic value.
"Art is a treasure for all of Iraq, which does not simply have oil underground. This should be encouraged, because it will be one of the main attractions for restoring the flow of tourists to the country,” added Yatooma. He says that he visited the museum "before the fall of Saddam," and that it constitutes a "point of pride" for all Iraq, even if Christian history and tradition were "hidden" from the eyes of Arab citizens.
Yatooma talks about a "black hole" corresponding "to the period in which Christianity flourished," and expresses his hope that the new course of the National Museum "will take into consideration the presence and value of the Christian community, which played a leading role in the historical-cultural tradition of the country."
But the signs coming from the current parliament - still made up of imams and ayatollahs - do not bring hopes of "positive developments over the short term." "The most striking work," the Chaldean intellectual concludes, "are the winged bulls of the Assyrian period, dating back to around the first millennium B.C. They are huge and beautiful, a symbol of protection and defense against spies and the impure. They represent a national patrimony."