Cyprus’ religious heritage decimated by looting

Remember that long-winded entry about the Syriac Bible found by Turkish Cypriot police in Famagusta? I babbled about it so long because the articles in the international press took a complicated story about looting, smuggling and ethnic conflict and stripped it down into some silly ZOMG JESUS BIBLE sensationalism.

Well, those complexities hinted at in the local news stories are part of a really scary big picture.

In the wake of Turkey’s 1974 invasion of Cyprus, the island has suffered astronomical losses to its cultural patrimony, particularly its Orthodox heritage. The US Helsinki Commission has released a report detailing the destruction and it ain’t pretty.

According to the report:

  • 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.

That’s all in the northern part of Cyprus, still occupied by Turkish forces. The report was released last week which was the 35th anniversary of the invasion, a Turkish embassy spokesman pointed out, and it was compiled without Turkish input.

Also, it’s not like there’s no looting going on in the south — the Syriac Bible is thought to have been destined for a buyer in the south — so of course there are politics at play in the report and its release.

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 Washington representative from Northern Cyprus, Hilmi Akil, considers that straight propaganda. It’s a two-sided problem, in his view, since looting and site destruction happens in the south too. He notes Turkish Cypriot and Greek Cypriot leaders are setting up to a joint committee to confront the problem together.

Somehow, I don’t find that a terribly comforting prospect.