Bishop Porfyrios of Neapolis, “Stolen treasures: an endless torture”
Antigone Solomonidou Drousiotou
An endless torture is the repatriation of our stolen religious treasures. A continuous and painstaking effort, because, as years go by, these treasures appear less and less often at auctions and other forms of art trading, while the reluctance of some states to cooperate is growing, thus hindering the confiscation and return of them, notes Bishop Porfyrios of Neapolis.
He reminds us that the profits from clandestine trading of cultural goods are in third position globally, after arms and drugs.
But recently, two stolen icons were on their way home: that of Saint George of Mezere from Karavas, and that of Saint Hilarion from the church of Archangel Michael in Leukonoiko.
Referring to the last 10 years that he has spent living in the heart of Europe, he considers the founding of the Committee of Representatives of the Orthodox Churches to the European Union in 2010 as his most important accomplishment. He highlights the significant role that religions can play for the peaceful coexistence, cooperation and living together of European Peoples and underlines that peace in Cyprus will forever remain an elusive dream, if we don’t have mutual respect and an authentic predisposition for peaceful coexistence and cooperation.
Does the repatriation of icons continue?
It is an endless torture that began after the Turkish invasion and unfortunately it will go on for many years to come.
After 44 years, how do you cope with the difficulties?
As years go by, the stolen artifacts that are part of our heritage appear more and more scarcely in auctions or illegal trading, because most of them have already ended up in museums or private collections. The ones who know that they possess them illegally don’t exhibit them publicly, but rather hide their existence.
However, there are cases of smugglers who trade artifacts from their illegal inventories to profit from our stolen treasures.
How was the stolen icon of Saint George of Karavas confiscated last September, just a few hours before being sold?
The icon of Saint George from the church of Saint George of Mezere in Karavas was traced by the Church of Cyprus as it was about to be auctioned by the “Koller” art house in Zurich last September.
We verified the Cypriot origin and ownership of the icon, and reported the case to the competent Swiss authorities by way of the Cyprus Police and Ministry of Justice.
The confiscation of the icon at the auction house took place with the intervention of the Ambassador of the Republic of Cyprus in Rome, Mr. Tassos Tzionis, who is also accredited to Switzerland.
Why did it take one year until the icon was repatriated?
I cannot know the reasons why it took eleven months for the icon to be returned to us.
But there is also the icon of Christ (1500) from the Monastery of Antiphonitis that was confiscated four years ago, also in Zurich, and we are still waiting for its repatriation.
I wouldn’t like to think that this is a deliberate procrastination, but rather the inefficiency of a slow-moving bureaucracy.
The icon was painted in 1829. What was its course?
The icon of Saint George is 107x73 cm and was painted by Syngelos Chrysanthos, a member of the brotherhood of the Saint Heracleidios Monastery, in 1829.
The Saint is depicted as a mounted soldier who kills the dragon with a spear and saves the king’s daughter. The main theme is bordered by sixteen rectangular frames each one containing a miracle worked by the Saint or a scene from his martyrdom.
At the bottom of the icon there is an explanatory inscription about the themes of the icon. The icon was dedicated by Meletios Hieromonachos Abbot of the Monastery of Acheiropoietos in Karavas, which lies in the occupied territories.
He is shown kneeling behind the Saint’s horse holding a parchment saying: “O Saint, remember your servant Meletios, abbot of the monastery of Acheiropoietos”.
At some point, the icon was transferred to the eponymous church of the Saint in Karavas. The icon was still there when the turkish invasion took place.
Since then, we had lost traces of the icon until last September, when there was an attempt to sell it at the Swiss auction house “Koller”.
When did the icon return to Cyprus?
It has been repatriated since September 15.
Has the icon of Saint Hilarion also returned from England?
Indeed, on the 15th of August, on the feast of the Dormition of Virgin Mary, we managed to rescue the icon of Saint Hilarion (31x22.5 cm) made in the 2nd half of the 18th century, from the “Dreweatts” auction house, in Newbury, England.
Before the turkish invasion, the icon was in the church of Archangel Michael in Leukonoiko. After the turkish invasion the icon was stolen and illegally exported from Cyprus.
It was tracked on the internet by the Department of Antiquities. The tracking of the icon was announced to us by the Cyprus Police us on the eve of the auctioning. This is why our reaction was immediate.
When was it repatriated?
It returned on the 11th of September. It will be stored at the Byzantine Museum of the Church of Cyprus until the day of its return to Leukonoiko. That is when it will be restored to the church where it was originally consecrated.
How much difficult a struggle is necessary for tracking and repatriating the icons?
The struggle is continuous and painstaking. One needs to be constantly vigilant and alert. Very often the reaction time for reclaiming an artifact is very short.
Therefore it is necessary that we have a perfectly synchronous reaction of all the competent authorities. If one of them runs behind, the whole effort collapses.
Unfortunately, there is also the reluctance of some states to collaborate with us that raises a serious obstacle against the confiscation and return of stolen artifacts.
It is well-known that profits from the illegal trading of cultural goods globally rank third behind arms and drugs.
Do we know how many religious artifacts have been stolen from the occupied territories?
We don’t know exactly but we estimate that a minimum of 20,000 icons have been stolen. Besides that, there is the decoration and religious equipment of the 575 churches and monasteries of the occupied Cyprus. Therefore, the number of stolen artifacts raises by many thousands.
How many have been tracked and returned?
Unfortunately, only a few hundreds.
How does the process of tracking them begin?
They are tracked following a systematic monitoring of the internet and especially of auctions of religious artifacts and antiquities.
We also gather information from the embassies of the Republic of Cyprus abroad, the Cypriot diaspora or just friends of Cyprus.
The greatest difficulty lies in tracking them and then convincing foreign authorities about their Cypriot origin and about the fact that the Church was owner right before the turkish invasion.
Many of them are found in private collections within the territory of the European Union. What steps do we take then?
Once we track them, we make formal appeals for their return. That is why many collectors do not easily exhibit stolen artifacts from Cyprus.
What marked your presence in the heart of Europe during the last decade?
Our continuous efforts to raise the awareness of European authorities concerning the status of Greek Cypriots, Maronites, Armenians and Catholics, all of whom are legitimate residents of Cyprus, and about the ongoing suppression of their religious freedom by Turkey and the occupying regime since 1974.
What are some of your achievements?
I would say that our main achievement has been the founding of the Committee of Representatives of the Orthodox Churches to the European Union (CROCEU), in 2010.
It comprises representatives of the Ecumenical Patriarchate, Moscow Patriarchate, Romanian Patriarchate, Patriarchate of Bulgaria and the Churches of Cyprus and Greece.
Also, informing the European Institutions about the ongoing tragedy of the Cypriot people.
What is the role of an Orthodox Bishop in the heart of the European Union?
Our role is to give witness about the Orthodox ethos and theology on every issue concerning human life and society.
Secularization in Europe and the world is extremely fast paced, which is why giving witness about the Orthodox life and tradition is relevant and important today more than ever.
What do you think about the role that religions could play in the EU?
Religions can contribute significantly in the ability of European peoples to coexist, cooperate and live together peacefully.
In recent years, a series of events have highlighted the role that religions can play in our lives.
This is why the European Institutions have taken this kind of dialogue to a higher level.
A host of problems for the EU.
What do you think of “The Future of Europe—Reflections for the EU by 2025”?
The European Union is faced with numerous problems, such as the Brexit, the handling of ceaseless waves of immigration, the terrorist attacks by jihadists in capital cities and other large cities of Europe, an ageing population, and secularization.
If they don’t take generous measures to enhance birth rates, and to promote our cultural tradition, European values and principles, then we are going to see a very different Europe in the upcoming years.
The vision of a European Union as a Union of principles and values, as it was envisioned by its founding fathers is not as attractive and convincing as it used to be. This is due to national politics rather than European.
How can you help the EU confront terrorism that has spread fear and anxiety in many European cities?
The Orthodox Church unequivocally condemns terrorism and acts of terror in the name of religion as actions that are essentially against religion.
People who are involved in such actions are spiritually or mentally ill. The Church inspires love and invites people to live together and coexist in peace, regardless of gender, color, nationality or religion.
Are there two different versions of Islam? A “good” one that denounces terrorism and a “bad” one that fuels tension?
I was also troubled by this question for a long time. From my study I have reached the conclusion that both versions exist in Islam.
It depends on which part of the Quran is used by a Muslim to draw his beliefs. During the initial period, when Mohamed wrote the first part of the Quran, before moving from Mecca to Medina, his teachings were peaceful.
After the Hegira (the movement from Mecca to Medina) in 632, his teaching turns more violent. The faithful are called to spread the Islamic beliefs all over the world, with every means possible.
There is a principle in the Quran: whenever two passages contradict each other, then it is the most recent that prevails.
In that way, there are people who choose to render Islam as a peaceful religion and others who render it as a religion that struggles to impose violently (through the “jihad”) its own truth around the world.
Our problem is political. Religion is a victim of the conflict.
In 2009, on the initiative of the Swedish Embassy, an interreligious dialogue began in Cyprus. Where has that taken us to?
The interreligious dialogue in Cyprus is ongoing, despite the difficulties. It is true that our expectations were very high, in the beginning.
In the course of this dialogue we realized that the two sides weren’t as efficient, even though they all meant good.
The talks would have been more fruitful, if it weren’t for external interventions and obstacles.
You are asking to have free access to the religious sites and the cemeteries found in the occupied territories of Cyprus. How feasible can we expect this to be?
We don’t have any access to monuments and cemeteries found within camps or military zones of the occupying forces, except for one case: the Maronite village of Saint Marina of Skylloura, where a Liturgy is allowed to take place once a year, on the Feast of the Saint (July 17).
As for the rest of the monuments and the cemeteries, we are allowed to access them, but it is not allowed for their owners to clean and maintain them. A license for religious services are given only through a lot of restrictions and prohibitions.
The few acts of maintenance that are allowed to take place can only be performed through the Technical Commission on Culture, with a financial support by the European Union mostly.
Till this day, they have maintained around 10 churches from a total of 575, still awaiting silently and usually deserted.
There is an academic dialogue between religions, but there is also a dialogue of life, when you live together with people of different faith?
Indeed, there is an interreligious dialogue, but there is also an everyday dialogue, where people communicate with each other, to the extent that conditions allow for this.
This is proof for the longstanding position of the Church of Cyprus that we never had, nor have, a religious problem. Prior to the invasion, people used to exchange gifts and visits during the great religious festivals of Christianity and Islam.
Even today, there is no religious conflict whatsoever between Christians and Muslims. Clearly, our problem is only political. Religion is just another victim of the political conflict.
Is respect towards the other our only way to promote peace?
Without mutual respect and an honest predisposition to achieve a peaceful mode of coexistence and cooperation, peace shall always remain an elusive dream.
On our part, we are working towards that goal. The bitter truth is that our efforts are not met with a similar benevolence on the part of the Turkish Cypriot community.
Could you be pioneers not only for coexistence but also for brotherhood?
That is our task and our mission, since we are all God’s children and descendants of Adam and Eve.
That is what we also try to achieve through the interreligious dialogue in Cyprus, as well as in our everyday contacts.
If this dialogue takes place in a spirit of good faith, can it actually offer any substantial assistance to the solution of the Cyprus problem?
Undoubtedly. Even the political leaders of our communities have admitted, out of nowhere, to subscribe to the fact that the interreligious dialogue enhances their efforts to peacefully resolve the Cyprus problem.
Is a Bishop allowed to have any ambitions?
In a secular sense of the word: no, he isn’t, because that would be a spiritual fall. But if we were to give the term a Christian meaning, then a bishop should struggle every day to be agreeable to God through his words and actions, and, if God permits, also to people.