“Religious Freedom and Holy Sites in the Republic of Cyprus” Seminar in the European Parliament
14 April 2010
Contribution of Rev Rüdiger Noll Director of the Church and Society Commission and Associate General Secretary of the Conference of European Churches
Eminences and Excellencies,
Allow me to start my short contribution to this seminar by giving thanks to the Representation of the Church of Cyprus in Brussels and His Grace Bishop Porfyrios for allowing the Church and Society Commission of the Conference of European Churches (CEC) to associate itself with the organisation of this important event. I want to also include into these thanks MEP Eleni Theocharous and all those who have helped to organise this event, giving witness to the situation in the Republic of Cyprus.
I am speaking here as a representative of the Conference of European Churches and its Church and Society Commission. The Conference of European Churches was founded in 1959 as a bridge-building organisation, in particular as a bridge-builder between the churches east and west of the Iron Curtain, which for so many years dominated the history of Europe in the last century.
The Church of Cyprus belongs to the oldest and most eastern of our 125 member churches from the anglican, orthodox, protestant and old-catholic traditions. And the island of Cyprus is already mentioned in the Bible (e.g. Acts 11,19) as a refuge for a group of Christians, who were persecuted in Jerusalem. This is probably the beginning of a long history of tolerance and mutual respect in Cyprus, as it was described by previous speakers for the time before 1974.
In 1989, the Conference of European Churches together with all Christians and all people in Europe rejoiced over the fall of the Iron Curtain. Soon after, in 1990, all European Heads of State and Government met in Paris to adopt the Charta of Paris for a New Europe, which reads: “Ours is the time for fulfilling the hopes and expectations our peoples have cherished for decades: steadfast commitment to democracy based on human rights and fundamental freedoms; prosperity through economic liberty and social justice; and equal security for all our countries.” This basis was echoed by the churches in Europe, which stated together in the Charta Oecumenica (2001): “On the basis of our Christian faith, we work towards a humane, socially conscious Europe, in which human rights and the basic values of peace, justice, freedom, tolerance, participation and solidarity prevail.” It is on the basis of this commitment, that churches in Europe continue to contribute to the further integration of our continent and to a world, in which justice, peace and sustainability are fundamental values.
1989 certainly was a kairos. People lived under the impression, that walls and borders dividing Europe politically had disappeared, new chances have opened. While the churches in Europe were part of grasping this momentum, they were also conscious, that not all walls had disappeared: Cyprus was still and is until today divided by the “Green Line”.
No wonder, therefore, that the Conference of European Churches at almost all of its Assemblies and at almost each meeting of its governing bodies addressed the issue of the divided Cyprus. And from its own involvement in the history of the divided Europe, the churches knew very well, that if there is a political division, justice suffers, the implementation of human rights suffers, people suffer, peace is in danger.
It is, therefore, that the Conference of European Churches in its public statements refers to the “unacceptable present situation created by the continued occupation of 37 per cent of the island, as well as violations of human rights and basic freedoms”. Already in 1996 the CEC asked for a “negotiated political settlement, which will restore the unity of the island, grant freedom of movement for all its inhabitants, ensure information about all missing people and facilitate the return of the displaced people to their homes.” (Central Committee, Bossey, 1996)
Just recently in October 2008, the Central Committee of the Conference of European Churches enjoyed the philoxenia (hospitality) of the Church of Cyprus at its meeting in Paralimni. It expressed its “joy for the resumption of the dialogue between the Greek and the Turkish communities in Cyprus” and expressed its concern “that the unification of the island should be facilitated by the withdrawal of occupying forces from it, for the well-being of all citizens of Cyprus, and the promotion of peaceful Christian-Islam co-existence.” (Central Committee, Paralimni, 2008)
The implementation of religious freedom is often an indicator for the implementation of human rights in general. And to maintain and to access places of worship, which are the property of a religious community, belongs to the right to exercise one’s religion. Several of the church representatives, who gathered in Paralimni used the occasion to visit the occupied territories of Northern Cyprus to witness themselves the ongoing desecration of churches, holy sites and monuments. The news were alarming and previous speakers in this seminar gave witness to the ongoing destruction and collapse of the Christian and cultural heritage in the Northern part of the island.
The Central Committee expressed its sorrow “at the ongoing desecration, since 1974, of churches and religious monuments in the Northern part of the island” and asked for the Turkish occupying army “to allow the urgent and necessary restoration and maintenance of this Christian and European cultural heritage, and the return to use of the churches by Christians in Cyprus”.
Ladies and Gentlemen, it is good and important that this seminar is taking palace in the European Parliament. The implementation of human rights, religious freedom and the restoration and use of holy sites is not only an internal Cypriot issue. It is a European issue. As the new Europe is built on democracy, human rights and justice, the European Institution must have an interest in implementing these values all over Europe and beyond. And frequent questions from Members of the European Parliament to the European Commission as well as resolutions of the Parliament show, that the European Parliament is taking its responsibility seriously, aiming at the implementation of human rights and religious freedom in Turkey and in the Republic of Cyprus.
However, not much, if anything, has changed with regard to the restoration and accessibility of churches is the occupied Northern Cyprus. Therefore, as a fellowship of churches in Europe, we want to seize the momentum of re-established talks between the Greek and the Turkish Cypriot communities in order to alert the European Institutions as well as the broader public to the ongoing destruction of holy sites and of the cultural heritage in Northern Cyprus. The issue must be addressed I these talks. Time is pressing. As His Beatitude, Archbishop Chrysostomos II, has said in a recent interview: another thirty-eight churches and monuments are near to collapse. (Weekly Standard, 1 Febr 2010) Therefore, we urge the European Institutions to do all in its power to accompany the present talks between the Greek and the Turkish communities to a successful end, leading to European values and standards being implemented. We ask the European Institutions to use all its influence for the protection and the restoration of the holy sites in the whole of the Republic of Cyprus.
Last but not least, as the Conference of European Churches has expressed several times in the framework of the EU accession negotiations with Turkey, the political talks must be accompanied by an inter-cultural and inter-religious dialogue of the people, if tolerance and mutual respect are to be lived. The same seems to be true for the situation in Cyprus: if reconciliation and the unification of the island shall be achieved, it needs the inclusion of the religious communities in the dialogue and a dialogue of the people across religious and cultural borders. Churches in Europe as well as the Conference of European Churches stand ready to support and facilitate such dialogue.