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US Helsinki Commission highlights plundering of religious sites in occupied Cyprus
2009-07-27 08:59:27

Washington, July 22 (CNA) – A report, issued by the US Helsinki Commission, underlines that religious artifacts in the Turkish occupied north of Cyprus are in "great peril."

The report notes that thousands of Orthodox icons, manuscripts, frescoes and mosaics have been looted from churches, chapels and monasteries in northern Cyprus, ending up on international auction blocks. The report is the result of a lengthy investigation by the Helsinki Commission and titled "Destruction of Cultural Property in the Northern Part of Cyprus and Violations of International Law."

An article in "The Washington Times" on Tuesday cited extracts from the report obtained ahead of a panel discussion on Capitol Hill. 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."

Thirty-five years of occupation of northern Cyprus by Turkish forces have ruined "a plethora of archeological and religious sites," says the report, which adds that the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) has been documenting the destruction since 1984.

The report, according to "The Washington Times," notes that 500 Orthodox churches or chapels have been pillaged, demolished or vandalized, 133 churches, chapels and monasteries have been desecrated, 15,000 paintings have disappeared, 77 churches have been turned into mosques, 28 are being used by the Turkish military as hospitals or camps, and 13 have been turned into barns.

A staff member for the Helsinki Commission has said that a copy of the report had been sent to the Turkish Embassy in Washington, but an embassy spokesman said it had not been received.

Dr. Klaus Gallas, Byzantine Expert and Art Historian, Dr. Charalampos G. Chotzakoglou, Professor of Archaeology at the Hellenic Open University, and 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 of the report by the Law Library of Congress.

Jansen said that 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.

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, said that "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 [...]"

The report said that the government of the Republic of Cyprus has spent about 600,000 dollars since 2000 to renovate 17 historic mosques.

According to the report, the 77 churches converted into mosques have texts from the Koran inscribed where icons and paintings used to be; the St. Anastasia monastery is now a hotel with a swimming pool and casino; and the Byzantine-era monastery of Antiphonitis has had its icons and murals removed and sold to art dealers.

The report says there are 660,000 Greek Cypriots living on the island's southern part, 89,000 Turkish speakers in the north and 43,000 Turkish soldiers serving as an occupying force.

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 Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, also known as the Helsinki Commission, is an independent U.S. government agency created by Congress in 1976 to monitor and encourage compliance with the Helsinki Final Act and other OSCE commitments in the 56 OSCE participating states. The Commission consists of nine members from the U.S. Senate, nine from the House of Representatives, and one member each from the Departments of State, Defense and Commerce.

To Read the Entire Report, Follow this Link

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