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, located in the rural and mountainous areas of the island, are decorated with very old and priceless mosaics, frescoes and icons.
However, as a result of the 1974 Turkish invasion and the illegal occupation of 36.2% of Cyprus’s territory, the cultural and religious heritage in the area not under the effective control of the Government of the Republic of Cyprus, has been subjected to the most violent and systematic destruction. As a result of the ongoing policy of pillage, destruction and disrespect of the occupation authorities towards the religious and cultural heritage of Cyprus, hundreds of historic and religious monuments in various regions of the occupied area have been destroyed, looted and vandalized. Illegal excavations have been carried out and art treasures have been stolen from museums and private collections and sold abroad.
According to information provided by the competent authorities of the Government of Cyprus, more than 500 Greek Orthodox churches and chapels and 17 monasteries located in towns and villages of the occupied area, have been pillaged, deliberately vandalized and in some cases, demolished. Until today, the whereabouts of the ecclesiastical items of these churches, including more than 15 000 portable icons, remain unknown. Moreover, it is estimated by the Cyprus police that since 1974 more than 60 000 ancient 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 fact that more than 133 churches, chapels and monasteries have been desecrated, 77 churches have been converted into mosques, 28 are being used by the occupation forces as depots, dormitories or hospitals, 13 are used as stockyards or hay barns, clearly proves that the target of the occupation authorities has always been the religious and cultural heritage in the northern part of Cyprus. In particular, the recent conversion of the church of Agia Anastasia, in the occupied village of Lapithos (Kyrenia region), into a luxurious hotel and casino and the use of the Armenian Monastery of Sourp Magar (founded in the Medieval period) as a cafeteria, constitute concrete proof of the illicit purposes of the occupation authorities. Furthermore, such actions prove that not only the Orthodox Church, but the Armenian and the Latin Churches of Cyprus have also been victims of such plunder and have suffered considerable loses.
Due to the Turkish invasion, all the legitimate archaeological excavations in the districts of Ammochostos, Kyrenia and Morfou were interrupted. Unfortunately, it has been reported that all items permanently exhibited in museums in the occupied area, as well as the unregistered material from the storehouses of foreign archaeological missions, were also looted and illegally exported abroad.
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 issuing 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 many archaeological sites in the occupied part of the island. In particular, an illegal excavation has recently been conducted at the archaeological site of Galinoporni in the peninsula in the Karpas, which is one of the most important sites of the Late Bronze Age in Cyprus. Another example is the illegal excavation of the archaeological site of Salamis organized by the University of Ankara. The aforementioned university, violating all international conventions and demonstrating no respect to scholarly ethics and previous excavators, began excavation works in 1999. As a result, archaeological remains dating to all the historical periods of Cyprus civilization are systematically found in the possession of auction houses abroad.
Unfortunately, in numerous cases the occupation forces caused the complete destruction of unique religious and archaeological sites. A recent example of the Turkish army’s lack of respect has been the demolition of a Neolithic settlement at the Cape of Apostolos Andreas-Kastros in the occupied area of Rizokarpaso, despite the fact that the said site was declared an Ancient Monument by the Republic of Cyprus. The aim of this unacceptable action which was conducted by the use of bulldozers, was the placement of two flag poles of Turkey and the “TRNC” on top of the hill.
The Republic of Cyprus is systematically working for the protection as well as the preservation of its religious and cultural heritage. The Department of Antiquities is aware of the progressive devastation of many archaeological sites in the occupied area and has repeatedly submitted through the United Nations Forces in Cyprus, the request to visit these sites and conduct the necessary restoration works. Unfortunately, due to the refusal of the occupying power this is not feasible.
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 Government of the Republic of Cyprus. The most well-known case, with international repercussions, has been the removal and illegal export of the Kanakaria mosaics, a rare work of the 6th century AD A lawsuit filed by the Orthodox Church of Cyprus in the United States District Court of Indianapolis resulted in a judgment in 1989, whereby the mosaics were returned to their rightful owner, the Church of Cyprus, two years later.
The international community is very sensitive on issues of protection and respect of the religious and cultural heritage around the world, as it becomes evident from the number of conventions and protocols adopted for the protection as well as the return of such cultural heritage artifacts to their rightful owners. For example, the UNESCO recommendation on International Principles Applicable to Archaeological Excavations under Article VI (32) of 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.”
Many other Conventions have been adopted for the protection of international cultural heritage or the return of such priceless inheritance to the rightful owners. Among these, are the 1970 Convention “on the Means for Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property” and the 1995 Unidroit Convention on Stolen or Illegally exported Cultural Property, the European Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms and its Protocols, which is relevant to the refusal of the occupation authorities to permit the autocephalous Orthodox Church of Cyprus, as the legal owner, from having access to its property, as well as the European Convention on the Protection of Archaeological Heritage and several directives of the European Union.
Cyprus, in order to achieve the best possible results regarding the protection of its cultural inheritance, is also a contracting party to the 1954 Hague Convention for “the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict” (1964). This international agreement is considered to be the most important in the case 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”.
Despite the fact that Turkey is a contracting party to the Hague Convention (1965) as well as to the Convention of UNESCO (1970) “on the Means for Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property”, she persists in not complying with her obligations deriving from these conventions and continues its systematic destruction of the cultural heritage of Cyprus.
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