The US Helsinki Commission under the co-chairmanship of Senator Ben Cardin and Representative Alcee Hastings held a briefing entitled “Cyprus’ Religious Cultural Heritage in Peril.” Since the Turkish military invasion and continuing occupation of nearly 37% of the territory of the Republic of Cyprus, the devastation of the island’s heritage has been comprehensive. Churches, chapels, monasteries, libraries, museums, and private collections of religious art and antiquities were looted. Religious and historical sites have been damaged, ravaged or allowed to disintegrate. Dr. Klaus Gallas, Byzantine Expert and Art Historian, Dr. Charalampos G. Chotzakoglou, Professor of Archaeology at the Hellenic Open University, and Ms. Michael Jansen, Correspondent and author of the book “War and Cultural Heritage: Cyprus after the 1974 invasion” testified before the Commission on the findings of their extensive research on the cultural and religious desecration of the Cypriot heritage in the northern Turkish-occupied part of Cyprus, in view of the release today of the report by the Law Library of Congress entitled “Cyprus: Destruction of cultural property in the northern part of Cyprus and violations of international law” on the destruction of cultural property in the occupied areas.
“An estimated 16,000 icons, wall paintings and mosaics and 60,000 archaeological items have been looted and exported from northern Cyprus. While the Turkish authorities have done little or nothing to halt cultural cleansing and have even contributed to it, individual Turkish Cypriots, who regard the heritage of the island as their own, have castigated the authorities and publicized the pillage”, Ms. Jansen emphasized, while Dr. Gallas, who has traveled and researched extensively on the conditions of cultural and religious sites in the Turkish-occupied Cyprus pre and post 1974, continued on the same train of thought: “Art theft in the Turkish occupied part of the Republic of Cyprus was usually only possible when it was tolerated or happened under the watchful eye of the Turkish military… The loss to Cyprus and to UNESCO’s World Cultural Heritage is unimaginable. It can be assumed that the amount of booty we are aware of is only a fraction of the material that has actually been stolen from the Orthodox churches of Cyprus.”
Dr. Chotzakoglou stated that “around 500 churches and religious sites belonging to the Greek-Orthodox Autocephalous Church of Cyprus, the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate of Jerusalem, the Holy Monastery of St. Katherine in Sinai, the Roman Catholic Church, the Catholic-Armenian Church, the Catholic-Maronite Church, the Jewish community, as well as the Protestant Church, along with their cemeteries have been willfully desecrated, pillaged, looted and destroyed”. He added that Christian churches have been converted, inter-alia, into military camps, stables, hotels, theaters, nightclubs and sports clubs, while “the church of the Savior in the Chrysiliou-village is used today as a mortuary”.
The Law Library of Congress report underlines Turkey’s legal responsibility “to refrain from acts of hostility and damage against cultural property located in the northern part of Cyprus; to prohibit and prevent theft, pillage, or misappropriation of cultural property; and to establish criminal jurisdiction to prosecute individuals who engage in acts of destruction, desecration, and pillage […]”. Moreover, in the Report’s concluding remarks it is stated that “under conventional and customary international law, Turkey, as an occupying power, bears responsibility for acts against cultural property. Responsibility also arises based on legal instruments addressing the illicit export and transfer of ownership of stolen cultural objects from the occupied northern part of Cyprus”.
“The important report by the Law Library of Congress and the initiative of the Helsinki Commission shed light on the long-endured destruction and desecration of Cyprus’ cultural heritage in the Turkish-occupied area,” said Ambassador of the Republic of Cyprus, Andreas S. Kakouris. The report details the ongoing plundering of religious sites in the Turkish-occupied northern region of Cyprus, and Turkey’s responsibility as the occupying country, a clear violation of international law.