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Destruction of Cultural Heritage

Destruction of Cultural Heritage

Cyprus is a country with a unique history and an ancient civilization dating back to 9000 BC. Due to its geographical position, Cyprus adopted the Christian faith from the very beginning of Christianity and as a result has some of the finest collections of Byzantine art in the world. A significant number of churches, chapels and monasteries are decorated with very old and priceless mosaics, frescoes and icons.

One of the most tragic consequences of the 1974 Turkish invasion and the subsequent illegal occupation of 36.2% of the territory of the Republic of Cyprus is the violent and systematic destruction of the cultural and religious heritage in the occupied areas. Hundreds of historic and religious monuments in various regions of the occupied areas have been destroyed, looted and vandalized. Illegal “excavations” have been carried out and cultural treasures have been stolen from museums and private collections and were sold abroad. 

More than 550 Greek Orthodox churches, chapels and monasteries located in towns and villages of the occupied areas, have been pillaged, deliberately vandalized and, in some cases, demolished. Many Christian places of worship have been converted into mosques, depots of the Turkish army, stockyards and hay barns. This fact clearly proves that the religious heritage in the occupied areas has been the target of the occupation regime as part of its policy to eradicate the cultural character of the area. Moreover, important cultural monuments and places of worship continue to be completely inaccessible because they are located within the “military zones” of the Turkish occupation army.

The whereabouts of the ecclesiastical items of these churches, estimated to 20, 000, remain unknown. The Cyprus Police estimates that since 1974 more than 60,000 cultural artifacts have been illegally transferred to different countries around the world. The most significant and priceless icons came in possession of auction houses and were illegally sold by art dealers abroad.

The destruction is not limited to the monuments belonging to the Church of Cyprus, but also extends to religious monuments belonging to the Orthodox Patriarchate of Jerusalem and to the Armenian, Maronite and Catholic Churches of Cyprus, as for example the Armenian Monastery Sourp Magar in Halefka and the Maronite Monastery of Prophet Elias in Skylloura. 

Because of the Turkish invasion, all the legitimate archaeological excavations in the occupied areas were interrupted. Reportedly all the items permanently exhibited in museums in the occupied area, as well as the unregistered material from the storehouses of foreign archaeological missions were looted and illegally exported abroad. Significant archeological sites, such as the late Bronze Age site of Enkomi, are abandoned to the elements of nature and in need of urgent conservation.

Despite the fact that the Department of Antiquities of the Ministry of Communications and Works of the Republic of Cyprus is the only legal authority to issue excavation or restoration permits in Cyprus and has full responsibility over any works carried out in the entire territory of the Republic, “excavations” continue to be illegally conducted in archaeological sites in the occupied part of the island. An example is the illegal excavation of the archaeological site of Salamis organized on a yearly basis by the University of Ankara since 1999. These actions violate the relevant international conventions and demonstrate disrespect to scholarly ethics. For example, the UNESCO recommendation on the International Principles Applicable to Archaeological Excavations under Article VI (32) for Excavations in Occupied Territory clearly stipulates that “in the event of armed conflict any Member State occupying the territory of another State should refrain from carrying out archaeological excavations in the occupied territory. In the event of chance finds being made particularly during military works, the occupying Power should take all possible measures to protect these finds, which should be handed over, on the termination of hostilities, to the competent authorities of the territory previously occupied, together with all documentation relating thereto.”

The role of Turkey in the illicit trade operated from the occupied area of Cyprus was illustrated by a number of cases brought to court by the Republic of Cyprus and the Church of Cyprus and the fact that some of the cultural objects traced abroad originate from sites located in military camps of the Turkish occupation army, such as the frescoes of Saint Themonianos of Lysi. 

The most well-known case with international importance relates to the removal and illegal export of the Kanakaria mosaics, a rare masterpiece of the 6th century AD. After a lawsuit filed by the Church of Cyprus in 1989 to the District Court of Indianapolis in the U.S.A. the mosaics were returned to Cyprus. Judge Bauer, President of the U.S. Court of Appeals, in his 1990 Judgment concluded that: “Only the lowest of scoundrels attempt to reap personal gain from this collective loss. Those who plundered the churches and monuments of war-torn Cyprus, hoarded their relics away, and are now smuggling and selling them for large sums, are just such blackguards”.

The international community is very sensitive regarding the protection and respect of the religious and cultural heritage worldwide, as it is evident from the number of Conventions and Protocols adopted for the protection of cultural heritage, as well as for the return of such cultural heritage artifacts to their rightful owners. 

The Republic of Cyprus is a contracting party to the 1954 Hague Convention for “the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict” (1964). This Convention is considered to be the most important in the case of the occupied areas of Cyprus. In particular, article 4(3) of the said Convention states that the occupying power undertakes to “prohibit, prevent and, if necessary, put a stop to any form of theft, pillage or misappropriation of any acts of vandalism directed against, cultural property”. Turkey is a contracting party to the Hague Convention since 1965. 

Both the Republic of Cyprus and Turkey are also contracting parties to the 1970 UNESCO Convention “on the Means for Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property” which, inter alia, provides that: “the export and transfer of ownership of cultural property under compulsion arising directly or indirectly from the occupation of a country by a foreign power shall be regarded as illicit.” (Article 11).

Many other Conventions have been adopted for the protection of the world cultural heritage and its return to the rightful owners. Among these, is the 1995 Unidroit Convention on Stolen or illegally exported Cultural Property, the European Convention on the Protection of Archaeological Heritage and several directives of the European Union. 

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