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Occupied Cyprus: How Turkey has destroyed Christian cultural heritage

Larnaca, Cyprus | Unsplash/Hert Niks

While Russia's invasion of Ukraine is ongoing, an EU member nation remains occupied, ethnically cleansed and colonized by a NATO member — and this for the past 48 years. I’m referring to the continual occupation of the Republic of Cyprus by Turkey.

Much of the cultural and religious heritage of this ancient nation has been obliterated by Turkey. The Turkish invasion brought with it destruction to non-Muslim historic sites, including the cultural heritage of Greek, Jewish, Armenian, Latin, Maronite, and other communities. In spite of this, the West has largely remained silent.

The illegal invasion and forced division of Cyprus by Turkey in 1974 based on the religion and ethnicity of its residents, has led to countless human rights violations including cultural heritage destruction and systematic discrimination — even regarding death and burial.

Ninety-year-old Greek Cypriot citizen, Spyros Hadjigregoriou, for example, lost his life in November of last year due to a brain hemorrhage. He died in his native country, Cyprus, deprived of his greatest wish: being buried in his village of Gerolakkos. Nicosia has been illegally divided in two by Turkey, which occupies part of the city. After the invasion campaign, in violation of international law, Turkey established an illegal regime in the occupied north of Cyprus.

Hadjigregoriou spent decades trying to receive "permission" from the de-facto Turkish "authorities," including the presidents of the occupying regime in the north of the Republic of Cyprus. His constant requests and appeals were of no use. The Turkish occupying forces did not allow him to rest in peace in the village of his ancestors.

Since its occupation in 1974, 36% of Cyprus has remained under Turkey's rule.

Sener Levent, a Turkish Cypriot journalist, and editor in chief of the newspaper Avrupa, has extensively covered Hadjigregoriou's story: "I wrote my first article about Spyros in the late 1980s," Levent said.  "My newspaper continued covering his story for years until his death. Spyros was a peace activist who hosted events in his house to bring together all Cypriots. He was a good friend of mine, and we once went to the cemetery of his village together. Most gravestones were no longer in the cemetery. But he still yearned to be buried there."

Around 40,000 Turkish troops are still illegally deployed in the northern part of Cyprus. Forced mass displacement occurred when Turkey invaded Cyprus twice in 1974 — on July 20 and August 14 — 14 years after Cyprus gained independence from British rule and became an independent republic in 1960.  Like the rest of the island, the northern part of Cyprus’s population was Greek majority until the invasion, which forcibly changed the demographic character of Cyprus.

The military campaign was characterized by murders, bombing of civilian targets including hospitals, unlawful detention of both soldiers and civilians in what amounted to concentration camps, systematic, summary execution of civilians, as well as torture and mistreatment including rapes of Greek Cypriots. Through these atrocities, the Turkish occupation forces terrorized Greek Cypriots, causing approximately 170,000 to flee south. Their lands, homes, businesses and other properties were seized, looted and distributed to members of the Turkish occupation army and illegal settlers from Turkey. To this day, at least 1,000 Cypriots remain missing.

Hadjigregoriou's story is not an isolated incident. Indigenous Greek Cypriots who were forced to leave the occupied north are not allowed by the Turkish occupying forces to be buried in their ancestral cemeteries. In fact, the cemetery where Hadjigregoriou's parents were buried is in ruins. "The tombstones are scattered all around … Dry yellow grass is knee-deep ... Hadjigregoriou could not find [the graves of] his mother and father lying in this cemetery, " the newspaper Afrika reported in 2012. This is part of the Turkish campaign to plunder and systematically destroy the Cypriot cultural and religious heritage in the occupied part of the island.

Even if Hadjigregoriou had been able to be buried in his native village, his grave would probably not be safe as Christian cemeteries in the occupied area have been methodically destroyed.

According to a report "The Destruction of the European Civilization of Cyprus by Turkey" by the Committee of Cyprus Occupied Municipalities:

"When a number of checkpoints opened in 2003, Greek Cypriots who visited their villages and cities witnessed with their own eyes the extent of barbarity and devastation, especially so in Kyrenia, Yialousa, Assia, Genagra, Lysi etc. Similar treatment was reserved for the Jewish cemetery in Margo, which was desecrated in a grossly irreverent manner."

Historic churches, chapels and monasteries have also been subject to desecration and destruction. They have been pillaged, deliberately vandalized and, in some cases, demolished. Many have suffered irreparable damage. Innumerable cultural and religious artifacts of enormous value have been stolen to be illegally transferred to different countries around the world and sold.

The Representation of the Church of Cyprus to the European Union further reports:

"All cemeteries have been ravaged and churches have been turned into mosques, museums, cultural centres, athletic clubs, cafes, hotel apartments, granaries, stables and barns, warehouses, theaters, hostels, restaurants, offices, art studios and galleries, garages and military installations. One of them is even a morgue! Some have already collapsed, and others have been purposely demolished … The cemeteries of our ancestors have been looted and destroyed. Graves have been opened and crosses and gravestones have been broken." 

All this destruction has taken place in an ancient land known for its Christian history, civilization, and heritage. The report explains:

"Cyprus possesses a unique history and an ancient civilisation that dates back to 9,000 BC. Thanks to its geographical location close to the Holy Land, it was one of the earliest countries to embrace Christianity. In 45 AD, when the Apostles Paul, Barnabas and Mark travelled to the island and preached the Gospel. It is for this reason that the whole island represents an open museum of Christian Art, with a huge number of churches and monasteries in urban rural and mountainous areas, frequently decorated with mosaics, murals and icons from every historical period. In Cyprus, the religion of the vast majority of the population, 80%, are Orthodox Christian, while 18% are Muslims and 2% are Maronite Christians, Armenians and Latins."

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.

Sadly, the West has stayed silent, if not complicit regarding the occupation and the subsequent ethnic cleansing and destruction of cultural heritage in the occupied territory. What is the reason for the West's incoherent attitude towards Turkey's invasion of Cyprus compared to Russia's invasion of Ukraine? 

Sadly, in the case of the occupation of Cyprus, the West, and NATO have stood with the aggressor and against the victim. This Western incoherency in freely allowing the Turkish occupation of Cyprus undermines the West's credibility and international authority.

For the past 48 years, the rightful owners of the Turkish occupied territory are unable to return to their homelands. Most of their cultural heritage has been demolished, and they have been subject to apartheid-style segregation by Turkey, even in death.

Uzay Bulut is a Turkish journalist and political analyst formerly based in Ankara. Her writings have appeared in The Washington Times, The American Conservative, The Christian Post, The Jerusalem Post, and Al-Ahram Weekly. Her work focuses mainly on human rights, Turkish politics and history, religious minorities in the Middle East, and antisemitism.

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