Religious Freedom and Holy Sites in the Republic of Cyprus
Wednesday, 14 April 2010
Intervention by H.E. Ambassador Andreas Mavroyiannis,
Permanent Representative of Cyprus to the EU
Your Beatitude, Archbishop of Nova Justiniana and all Cyprus,
Your Beatitude, Archbishop of Maronites in Cyprus,
Representatives of Churches and Christian denominations,
Honourable Members of the European Parliament,
Excellencies, Ladies and Gentlemen:
It is an honour to be here today, among all of you, in the European Parliament, which has always stood up for human rights and for the respect of diversity, and which has always honoured the right to different religions and cultures, this key characteristic of the people of the European Union.
Allow me first to define the right to religion and thus the religious freedom all men and women should enjoy, by quoting from article 18, of the United Nation’s declaration of Human Rights:
Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to, inter alia, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance.
In this intervention, I will present a few key events and actions, which will provide a clearer picture of the state of religious freedom in the occupied part of Cyprus. As you know, the European Parliament itself has recently through its resolution on Turkey’s progress report identified violations of human rights in the occupied by the Turkish army area of Cyprus. We are indeed concerned by the idea that on the soil of the Republic of Cyprus, on European soil, religious freedoms are in jeopardy, though not through our fault, but because we are victims of foreign aggression and occupation.
Thankfully, the same does not apply for the government-controlled areas. It goes without saying, that we provide our citizens both with the freedom to choose their religion and with the right and means to manifest their religion in their chosen places of worship. We continuously strive to restore and maintain all religious monuments. There is, for example, a special government program designed to restore, protect and maintain the Islamic cultural heritage on the island, which we consider an integral part of the island’s cultural heritage. The Cyprus government also cooperates with the UN in this respect, as for example for the restoration of the Hala Sultan Mosque, which is one magnificent example of the numerous restored mosques found in cities and villages throughout Cyprus.
For a better understanding of the situation in the occupied areas, two main aspects need to be examined: the people involved and the state of the places of worship or manifestation of a religious conviction.
In the first case, we distinguish mainly between two categories of people: the enclaved and, more recently, the pilgrims who wish to travel from the government-controlled areas in order to attend religious ceremonies in the occupied part. The second aspect, places, involves the more than 500 churches and monasteries in the occupied areas, the sacred objects and works of art within them and, of course, the cemeteries, the final resting place, inextricably connected to religious belief and to one’s roots.
In 1974, right after the invasion of Turkish troops in Cyprus, some 20.000 Greek Cypriots and Maronites remained in the occupied areas, in the hope that things would gradually go back to normal and that they could continue to live peacefully. Despite the agreement reached in 1975 in Vienna, by which the Turkish side undertook to give the enclaved population everything required to lead a normal life, the fact that today of those 20.000 only 467 enclaved remain behind the dividing Green Line, is a sign that things did not quite turn out that way.
The reason is clearly shown in the decision of the European Court of Human Rights in 2001, concerning the fourth interstate application that the Government of Cyprus submitted against Turkey, regarding continuing human rights violations in Cyprus. In the decision, among numerous other violations, the Court found the enclaved of the Karpas community to suffer from discriminatory treatment in violation of Article 3 of the European Convention of Human Rights, for degrading treatment on grounds of ethnic origin, race and religion. The Court also held that the Greek Cypriots of the Karpas area had had their rights to freedom of religion violated by restrictions which prevented organization of Greek Orthodox religious ceremonies in a normal and regular manner.
Two years later, in 2003, the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe adopted a resolution, once more condemning Turkey and the Turkish Cypriot occupation regime for violations of the rights and freedoms of the enclaved Greek Cypriots and Maronites.
Has the situation improved, you might ask? Yes, mildly. After numerous requests of the Cyprus government and demarches towards the UN and the ECHR, a second priest was appointed in Karpas in 2007. Nevertheless, even now, the enclaved have restricted access to temples outside their villages, with only three Greek orthodox churches allowed to function, while observance is also seriously hindered, especially due to the lack of priests.
Only 467 enclaved persons remain today in the occupied part of Cyprus. However, to restrict even a single person from exercising his or her religious rights, constitutes a violation of the freedom of religion, as severe a violation as it would be if thousands of people were affected.
On the other hand, for pilgrims visiting the churches in the occupied areas restrictions, fees and other hardships, arbitrary policies apply.
As mentioned earlier, the government of the Republic of Cyprus has made intense efforts to inform the international community, the United Nations and the European Union of these violations of human rights that take place in the occupied areas of Cyprus. On its part the European Parliament in its last resolution on Turkey s progress report in February 2010, urges Turkey to ensure that the rights of all displaced persons in Cyprus are respected, including those of religious minorities, and that they are allowed freely to exercise their religious rights; and stresses that, in the case of the Catholic Maronite community, freedoms should also be accorded to all four Maronite villages.
Coming to the second aspect of religion, the places, it must be noted that holy sites in the occupied areas are not only part of the religious heritage of Cypriots, but also of their cultural heritage. Cyprus is known as the “island of Saints” and only in the occupied areas there exist, or rather existed before the invasion of the Turkish army, more than 500 churches and monasteries, some dating as back as the early Byzantine era. The current state of these monuments is devastating. The majority has been left to deteriorate, suffering irreparable damage, whereas others have been turned to stables, to mosques, barracks for the Turkish army, museums or even hotels.
These monuments are more than just buildings. They are a vital link between the people of Cyprus and their roots. Today they stand jailed, hostages of a deliberate attempt to break this link between the people and their shrines, between the people of the world and an important element of the world’s religious and cultural heritage.
Examples include the Armenian monastery of Sourp Magar, once throbbing with life, and now ruined, its walls and roof collapsing, taking with them a history of hundreds of years. The occupation regime planned to convert this iconic for Armenians monastery into a hotel, a plan halted after the joined efforts of the Armenian Prelacy of Cyprus, international bodies and the Cyprus Government. However, manuscripts of great historical, religious and national value kept at the Monastery have disappeared.
The Holy Monastery of the Prophet Elias, in which the Maronite community took great pride in, was bombed in 1974 by the Turkish air force and now stands looted and desecrated, used as a stable.
The collapsed buildings are unfortunately not the only consequence of the Turkish invasion. More than 15.000 icons of saints, sacred vessels and gospels have vanished. Most importantly, Byzantine wall-paintings and mosaics have been either destroyed, or methodically removed from the walls of churches and illegally sold to collectors throughout the world. Examples of such lootings include the wall-paintings and icons of the Antifonitis Monastery and the Church of Ayios Themonianos, as well as the mosaics of Panayia tis Kanakarias, all three, thankfully, success-stories of at least partially being found and returned to the Republic of Cyprus and the Church of Cyprus, to which they belong. Unfortunately the same cannot be said for numerous other lost works of art that have either disappeared perhaps forever, or are in such a state of deterioration due to neglect that they may even be irreparable.
The state of several cemeteries in occupied Cyprus is also devastating and reveals disrespect to the last resting place of not only Greek Cypriots but also to members of other communities. The British Cemetery, the Jewish Margo Cemetery and numerous Greek Cypriot cemeteries, even the one still used by the enclaved Greek Cypriots in Rizokarpaso, lie desecrated, the crosses and headstones smashed to pieces, the graves opened.
In an attempt to limit the destruction of the Greek Cypriot cultural heritage the government of the Republic of Cyprus, together with the Church of Cyprus, are in cooperation with museums and international auction houses in order to identify stolen treasures, while large sums have been provided for their return to their rightful owners. The process is time-consuming, expensive and difficult, also due to the lack of cooperation from the occupation regime. Thankfully efforts are sometimes fruitful; allow me to recall the successful repatriation from the US of six Byzantine icons, in 2007, after the combined efforts of the Church of Cyprus and the government.
The Cyprus government considers the protection of the vast cultural heritage Cyprus has been blessed with, one of its priorities and has repeatedly brought the international community up to date with the destruction taking place in the occupied areas. Our foremost goal is to prevent further destruction and have stolen works of art return to their homeland. Important steps towards the protection of both religious and other historic cultural monuments of Cyprus have been made through the conclusion of bilateral agreements with other countries, such as the Memorandum of Understanding between the Republic of Cyprus and the government of the USA, concerning the imposition of import restrictions on pre-classical, classical and Byzantine objects and material, in an attempt to hinder their illegal worldwide trade.
It must be added that Turkey continues throughout the years to refuse abiding by UNESCO standards, and consequently to protect the Cypriot cultural heritage; one of many signs that the destruction may be a premeditated attempt to erase all traces of the historic Greek Cypriot presence in the occupied part. I cannot avoid mentioning other important sites that have been –at best- left to the elements of nature or destroyed and looted in most cases: the 3rd century mosaics of Salamina come to mind, the prehistoric Enkomi town, the 8th century BC Royal Tombs near Salamina. The sites that connect the people of my country with their roots and express the Hellenic spirit, which has been present in Cyprus for thousands of years, have been systematically destroyed. Even the names of towns and villages that have existed in both our books and in our memories, signifying not just a village, but home, even those have been changed. This looting should not only pain the Greek Cypriot community, but also the Turkish Cypriot community, to whom all of this also belongs, and is part of the identity of all of us in Cyprus, and of course by consequence part of the world’s cultural heritage.
By now you may be wondering: How do we remedy this situation? Is it enough to go to Court once, two times, ten times? Is it enough to have numerous decisions stressing that human rights have been stepped on by Turkey? Is it actually enough, to write report, after report, and read article after article, in international media, condemning the situation in the occupied areas?
The answer lies between the lines of this presentation’s title: How does the Cyprus government try to protect religious freedoms in the occupied parts? And let me stress: how does it try to? The key word is, try , because, as many of you know the government of the Republic of Cyprus has no control in the occupied 37% of its land. Who does? Turkey.
Turkey is the only one that can effectively remedy this situation, not simply by allowing the enclaved citizens of the Republic of Cyprus who chose not to leave their ancestral land, to exercise their religious rights and duties whenever and wherever they want, not just by allowing and facilitating the preservation of religious historic monuments, but foremostly by allowing the two communities that have for eons lived peacefully together on the island, to be re-united.
In this context and in the face of Turkey’s accession negotiations, we want to raise the issue of the protection of our cultural heritage. The European Union is a community built on strong values and on the respect of other cultures and civilizations, therefore Turkey’s path towards accession should entail firm steps in protecting cultural heritage. Both Cyprus and the European Union as a whole must exert pressure on Turkey to cease this destruction and cooperate in the preservation of our heritage. We are trying to make this a prerequisite for the progress in the relevant chapters of Turkey’s accession negotiations.
Turkey can help create a positive climate between the two communities, by supporting a re-unification of Cyprus, through a solution of a bizonal bicommunal federation with political equality, as described in the relevant resolutions of the Security Council of the UN, and with a single sovereignty, a single citizenship and a single international personality; a solution that abides by and respects the principles and values of the European Union.
Turkey can help the leaders of the Greek Cypriot community and the Turkish Cypriot community, the President of Cyprus Mr. Christofias and Mr. Talat, to move forward in their effort to re-unite the land and the people of Cyprus, who have shown through the ages that they can live together in harmony. All Cypriots should be able to recover their rights and the invisible thread to their roots, to their shrines and to the footprints of their ancestors, to their monuments, the tangible signs of their civilisation, their way of decoding infinity and the vertical dimension that links man with God, as an individual, and also as member of community of faithful, worshipping in harmony with the scriptures, with history, space, time and with a vision to a peaceful future.