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Bare Ruined Choirs

Turkey’s war on the cultural heritage of Cyprus

Feb 1, 2010, Vol. 15, No. 19 • By KATHERINE EASTLAND
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Most of the churches have been cast in new, secular roles as garages, luxury hotels, granaries, storage rooms for furniture or potatoes or hay, classrooms, bars, cafés, and art studios. One is a morgue. A few, such as the St. Barnabas Monastery in the Karpass peninsula, have been set up as icon galleries with whitewashed walls, but the works on view are not native to the buildings and are young and relatively worthless, dating from the 19th and 20th centuries.

Of the Christian buildings in the occupied north, three are kept, at least in appearance, as churches. But restrictions on their use and maintenance prevent Christians living in the north from worshiping in them regularly without interruption by Turkish officials. 

The history of converting churches into mosques and mosques into churches, and of reappropriating buildings of any faith for secular purpose, is long and well documented. But the argument that Cyprus’s occupied religious buildings, and the art within them, are legitimate spoils of war does not hold. In today’s Europe, cultural property is seen as subsisting in a special niche that should be protected. Under the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia (ICTY) and the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court (ICC), destruction of cultural heritage is considered a war crime. Furthermore, the European Union itself has several directives on cultural property—which Turkey would have to follow should it enter the EU. (Notably, one of the preconditions the EU has set for Turkey’s admission is a settlement to the Cyprus problem; i.e., the island’s reunification.)

This past summer in Washington the U.S. Helsinki Commission (CSCE), which monitors compliance between and among member states on the Helsinki accords, issued a 50-page report for Congress on the state of Cyprus’s cultural and religious heritage, saying that it was “in peril” and that “under conventional and customary law, Turkey, as an occupying power, bears responsibility for acts against cultural property.” It also numbers the various ways Turkey has violated international humanitarian law, as set forth in post-World War II treaties that Ankara has signed.

While there is a promising, but perhaps fatally slow-going, effort to reunify Cyprus by diplomatic means, the Church of Cyprus—which has remained independent through every vicissitude of political rule—believes it has a special, natural obligation to its religious heritage. But this heritage, especially if it’s already in shambles, fades in importance when urgent matters such as governance and property distribution are being addressed by the diplomats drafting a political settlement for Cyprus. The churches themselves simply don’t get much attention. But the Church, headed by Archbishop Chrysostomos II, is taking significant measures to try to save its property, usurped by the TRNC. And the Church reminds the EU that Turkey still has a long way to go before it conforms with EU policies.

Around Easter last year Chrysostomos opened an office in Brussels next to EU headquarters. When I met with him here in Nicosia—in his long office, featuring an icon of Christ in judgment on the wall behind his desk—he cheerfully said that at the new office there will always be a bishop to welcome EU parliamentarians and “present and promote our efforts.” By doing this, Chrysostomos hopes to “exert some pressure with the hope that we will manage to restore all the monuments if possible before it’s too late.” Thirty-eight are near collapse. 

“Of course, it goes without saying that I can see the huge difficulties associated with such a task, not to say its impossible nature. Unfortunately,” he continues, “it seems to me that Europe does not know the real dimensions of the problem.”
Chrysostomos is frank about meddling in politics:

I know that the government might be reacting to such an idea [direct involvement of the Church] especially at this time, but we will continue our efforts. We invited [Cypriot] President Christofias to come and inaugurate our offices with us in Brussels, but he didn’t.

To further publicize the churches—and prepare as much as possible for their pending restoration—the Church has underwritten, through the Kykkos Monastery, the work of a young Byzantinist at the Hellenic Open University in Patras, Greece, to catalog all accessible religious monuments in the north. Professor Charalampos G. Chotzakoglou started work on the project with a team of archaeologists and other Byzantinists in 2003, when the Green Line was partially opened by the TRNC government, allowing people to cross the line freely for the first time since 1974. The Helsinki Commission consulted Chotzakoglou’s detailed account when it drafted its report for Congress last summer.

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