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Still in Peril

Washington, D.C., remembers the occupied churches of Cyprus.

12:00 AM, Jul 29, 2009 • By KATHERINE EASTLAND
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Last week in Washington, D.C., more pressure was exerted on Turkey to recognize the widespread depredation and pillage of religious sites and objects in the northern third of Cyprus. This third, otherwise known as the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus--an illegal, unilaterally declared state recognized by Ankara only--is the land Turkey seized in 1974 and still holds under military occupation.

On Tuesday, July 21--one day after the 35-year anniversary of Turkey's first invasion on the island in 1974--the U.S. Helsinki Commission released a report for Congress. This 50-page report is entitled "Destruction of Cultural Property in the Northern Part of Cyprus and Violations of International Law" and is presently available online at csce.gov.

The report roundly acknowledges what the government of Cyprus and the Autocephalous Greek Orthodox Church of Cyprus, along with many scholars and journalists, have already observed: that "a plethora of archaeological and religious sites have been damaged" and that they are still "in peril."

The report notes that "500 Greek Orthodox churches and chapels have been pillaged, vandalized, or demolished; 133 churches, chapels, and monasteries have been desecrated; the whereabouts of 15,000 paintings are unknown; 77 churches have been converted into mosques, 28 are being used by the Turkish military forces as hospitals or camps; and 13 are used as agricultural barns."

Concluding remarks in the report find that "under conventional and customary law, Turkey, as an occupying power, bears responsibility for acts against cultural property." International humanitarian law pertaining to the protection of religious sites and objects is referenced throughout the report. Under the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia (ICTY), for instance, and the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court (ICC), destruction of cultural property is considered a war crime.

The Commission's report is notable not for presenting new information, but for being an additional witness, in another forum and before another audience, to the myriad acts of destruction and theft which have occurred, and continue to occur, in the northern third of Cyprus--and under the constant eye of the Turkish military, a force that is 43,000 soldiers strong on the island. Several of the ruined churches were, or still are, within Turkish military camps; their destruction could not have happened without the military's help and/or compliance.

On the same day the report was released, a press briefing and panel discussion was held on Capitol Hill. Moderated by Ronald J. McNamara, policy adviser of the Commission, the panel included Michael Jansen, author of War and Cultural Heritage: Cyprus after the 1974 Invasion; Klaus Gallas, German art historian and expert on the international smuggling of art; and Charalampos G. Chotzakoglou, professor of Byzantine art and archaeology at the Hellenic Open University in Patras, Greece. Also, Chotzakoglou has led and recently completed a project, in collaboration with the non-governmental Kykkos Monastery, to catalog the religious monuments in the north.

One of Jansen's points was to urge the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe--the Helsinki Commission monitors the compliance of agreements between its member states--to "press Ankara to halt the destruction of Christian sites, illegal excavations, traffic in icons and antiquities, and allow for the preservation of religious sites." She also noted that the OSCE could . . . ensure that member states do not receive stolen Cypriot art and antiquities."

Chotzakoglou brought up the lack of religious freedom in the north for non-Muslims, noting that for them there is "no right of staying in monasteries or convents, nor the right to have free religious elections, ordination of priests, building or repairing churches, or administrating their religious property." Therefore, he was "surprised" to read some passages in the 2008 International Religious Freedom Report prepared by the U.S. Department of State. Those passages indicated that there are only "some" restrictions on religious freedom in Cyprus and that "the Turkish-Cypriot authorities generally respected religious freedom in practice."

Two days later, a similar event with the same panelists was held at the Hudson Institute. At the conclusion of the panel discussion, the floor opened for questions. The first two came from supporters of the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus: Oya Bain, secretary general of the Assembly of Turkish American Associations, and Ihsan Kiziltan, a counselor at the Embassy of Turkey.

Bain exhorted the audience to visit the TRNC, which she defended as a legitimate state, and to see for themselves that the panel was not speaking truthfully about cultural property. The second speaker accused the panel of being one-sided and having "selective amnesia," and then stated that the Republic of Cyprus was not "not as rosy" as the panel had suggested. During the event, a protestor walked in circles outside in the rain with a red-and-white flag of the TRNC draped over his shoulders. He blared a blue foghorn and made pronouncements against the Hudson Institute.

To those who allege that military occupation is not happening in Turkey, Jansen said, "It seems like occupation. It looks like occupation. It just might be occupation." To those who allege the pictures of ruined churches and looted artifacts shown at the event are fabricated, Chotzakoglou cited that they were taken by U.S. Congress members and others on the Commission panel (such as McNamara himself) when they were preparing the report. And to those, such as Kiziltan, who passionately believe that this issue of cultural property should be accurately presented, Gallas wholeheartedly agrees. As he publicly said, he welcomes the "offer to work together."

It should be stressed, however, that Greek Cypriots are not wholly innocent. During the intercommunal fighting of 1963-1974, they destroyed several Muslim mosques and shrines. (This fact is mentioned in the Commission's report.) But also, as indicated in the report, the Church of Cyprus has spent $600,000 since 2000 on renovating ruined mosques. Neither Turkey nor the so-called TRNC has given money for restoring churches. Some has been spent on making a few of the religious buildings, such as the Holy Monastery of St. Barnabas, into museums for 19th- and 20th-century icons of meager value; but this is not the same thing as taking proper care of buildings and letting them be used as they were intended: as places of worship.

Cyprus is not asking Turkey for money to go toward renovating churches. Chotzakoglou said that his concern is to "gain permission with our own money"--that is, the Church of Cyprus's--"to restore our churches."

The best hope for the remnants of Cyprus's fractured religious heritage is the reunification of the island and the end of military occupation. In the meantime, Cyprus will keep mounting pressure on Turkey to acknowledge cultural destruction and will keep pursuing the repatriation of lost art items, such as mosaics, frescoes, and icons, through courts foreign, international, and regional.

Katherine Eastland is an assistant editor at THE WEEKLY STANDARD.