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The United Nations’ cultural agency, UNESCO, has added the historic center of the Ukrainian city of Odessa to its World Heritage List, calling it the “duty of all mankind” to protect it.
The status, which was granted by a UNESCO commission meeting in Paris on Wednesday, is intended to help protect the port city’s cultural heritage, which has been under threat since the Russian invasion.
“As the war continues, this inscription embodies our collective determination to ensure that this city, which has always risen from the world’s grief, is spared from further destruction,” UNESCO Director-General Audrey Azoulay said in a statement.
The 21 members of the World Heritage Committee approved the classification by six votes to one against, with 14 abstentions.
Russia repeatedly tried to delay the vote and denounced the final decision, saying that the only threat to Odessa came from “the nationalist system in Ukraine”.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, who requested the listing in October to protect the city from Russian bombing, welcomed the decision.
“I am grateful to the partners who helped protect our pearl from the attacks of the Russian invaders,” he said chirp Wednesday. Odessa is often described as the “Black Sea Pearl” of Ukraine.
Since the Russian invasion, Ukrainians have scrambled to try to protect the monuments and buildings in the city with sandbags and barriers.
The city has also been added to the List of World Heritage Sites in Danger, which UNESCO says “gives it access to enhanced international technical and financial assistance” for its protection or rehabilitation if necessary.
The agency added that it had already assisted in the repairs of the Odessa Museum of Fine Arts and the Odessa Museum of Modern Art after the damages they had sustained since the beginning of the war.
Odessa flourished after Russian Empress Catherine the Great decreed in the late 18th century that it would be the country’s modern sea gate.
Its location on the shores of the Black Sea allowed it to become one of the most important ports in the Russian Empire, but the extent of Russian cultural influence on the city is a controversial subject.
A draft resolution ahead of the UNESCO vote described Empress Catherine II as having “founded” the city, drawing criticism from Ukraine, objecting to what it saw as a “politicized” description of the city.
In an open letter seen by AFP, Ukraine’s Minister of Culture Oleksandr Tkachenko and Odessa Mayor Gennady Trukhanov objected, saying the city flourished long before the arrival of the Russian Empress.
“The continuous development of Odessa as a port city dates back to the 15th century,” they said, and it was known as Hadzibe.
In Moscow, the Russian Foreign Ministry accused a group of Western countries of passing what it called a “politically motivated” decision in violation of standard procedures.
“It was prepared in haste, without respecting the current high standards of UNESCO,” the foreign ministry said, stressing that only six countries voted for it.
Moscow referred to Odessa’s “glorious historical past as part of the Russian state” and insisted that the “only threat” Odessa faced was from the “nationalist regime in Ukraine” which removed a number of monuments in the city.
In December, Ukrainian authorities in Odessa toppled a statue of Catherine II as part of their efforts to remove Russians from the city, after soliciting residents’ opinions on what to do with it.
Six other Ukrainian sites have already been inscribed on the UNESCO World Heritage List, including Saint Sophia Cathedral in the capital Kyiv and the historic center of the western city of Lviv.
Reuters and Agence France-Presse contributed to this report.