The Ambassadors Fund for Cultural Preservation (AFCP) is a federal program that, since its establishment by Congress in 2001, has granted millions of dollars—$47,750,971 through 2013—to about 800 projects of foreign governments seeking to preserve historic structures and institutions. Administered by the Cultural Heritage Center at the State Department’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs, AFCP is little known to the American public. Grants are made on the basis of recommendations by U.S. ambassadors for purposes including “the restoration of ancient and historic buildings, assessment and conservation of rare manuscripts and museum collections, preservation and protection of important archaeological sites, and the documentation of vanishing traditional craft techniques and indigenous languages.”
Through the Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs, the fund has issued public reports on its awards since 2001. Dismayingly, they show that AFCP has given money to two states classified as funders of terrorism by the State Department: Syria under the dictatorship of Bashar al-Assad and Sudan under the tyranny of Omar al-Bashir.
In Syria in 2001, AFCP donated $15,372 to train Syrian museum curators to serve at an exhibit hosted by the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. The show featured Syrian archaeological artifacts from the 3rd century b.c. Then, in 2004-05, Syria was granted $26,000 for creation of a Cultural Heritage Documentation Unit. (Biennial reports enumerate grants awarded in the first year and carried out in the second.)
In 2005-06, Syria was paid $20,300 by AFCP for restoration of St. George Christian Church in the town of Izra’, dating from the 6th century.
Syria received more AFCP money in 2006-07: $26,813 for restoration of mosaics in its northern “forgotten cities.” The AFCP report for 2006-07 includes a photograph of the forgotten cities with a wall decorated by a poster of dictator Hafez al-Assad, who died in 2000.
For 2007-08, the AFCP allocated $31,529 for “preservation and management” of the archaeological remnants of the city of Busra, in southern Syria, near the border with Jordan. The funds were intended, according to the report, to encourage interpretation of “Busra’s complicated Roman, Christian, and Islamic history to a multicultural audience . . . [with] multilingual signage to improve the visitor experience in this culturally rich yet otherwise underdeveloped area of Syria and to enable tourism planners to incorporate this World Heritage Site into regional tour packages.”
Syria was granted more money by AFCP in 2008-09: $63,078 for conservation of pre-Islamic artifacts and for another Christian church, the Chapel of St. Hanania in Damascus, in two grants.
Throughout this period, Syria was sponsoring terrorism. A State Department Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs Fact Sheet dated March 20, 2014, states: “Syria has been on the U.S. list of state sponsors of terrorism since the list’s inception in 1979. Because of its continuing support and safe haven for terrorist organizations, Syria is subject to legislatively mandated penalties, including export sanctions under the Syrian Accountability Act and ineligibility to receive most forms of U.S. aid.”
With Syria ineligible for “most forms of U.S. aid,” why was an exception made for historic preservation? Syria under Assad is sharply at variance with American political principles. Its policy of ostentatiously protecting Christian sites is a dishonest one, aimed at persuading religious minorities to support Assad against the Sunni Muslim majority. Exceptions to U.S. sanctions have long been established for family-related and cultural visits to Iran and Cuba. But neither of those countries qualifies for AFCP support.
Furthermore, since the spring of 2011, Syria has been embroiled in unrest or full-scale civil war, a situation not conducive to the development of tourism. In September 2013, the State Department was finally compelled to recognize this. According to department spokesperson Jen Psaki, U.S. authorities cooperated with international museum experts to launch an “Emergency Red List of Syrian Cultural Objects of Risk.” The list consists almost exclusively of movable artifacts such as inscriptions, manuscripts, books, vessels, seals, and similar items that could be looted and sold. It is a feature of a U.S.-endorsed “Syria Cultural Heritage Initiative,” for which no U.S. financing has been disclosed.