There is irony in the fact that while Istanbul basks in the limelight as Europe’s City of Culture for 2010, Turkey, an aspiring EU member, continues to vandalise and destroy Europe’s cultural and Christian heritage in Cyprus.
The ethnic cleansing of Greek Cypriots was followed by cultural destruction. Desecrated graveyard in Eptakomi, occupied Cyprus (2007).
"Over 650 monasteries and churches have been destroyed, turned into stables or toilets. Irreplaceable icons and other works of art have been defaced or looted"
It is well known that in 1974 Turkey carried out an illegal invasion of Cyprus, as a result of which virtually all Greek Cypriots in the north of the island were ethnically cleansed and driven out of their homes.
But what is less well known is the appalling destruction and vandalism begun in 1974 but continuing to this day to the churches, monasteries and cemeteries of Cyprus. This has been done for cynical political purposes – to create the impression that the northern part of Cyprus somehow is and always was Turkish and to ensure that the Greek Cypriot lawful inhabitants never want to return, at a time when pressure is being brought to bear on them to accept the partition of the island. However the division of Cyprus into two ethnically separate areas overlooks one important factor – the historical, geographical and cultural reality that has existed in Cyprus for thousands of years.
Greeks have lived for thousands of years in what Turkey refers to as ‘northern Cyprus’ but Greek Cypriots call the occupied area. Greek language, culture, and religious practices have been part of the fabric of Cyprus for some 3,000 years.
Since the early days of the Apostles, Cyprus has possessed a rich Christian heritage. When the Apostles left the Holy Land to spread Christianity, Cyprus was one of the first places they reached and St Paul and St Barnabas established Christian communities there. St Andrew was shipwrecked in Cyprus and a famous monastery is located at the site. (Sadly it has been deliberately allowed to decay by the illegal Turkish regime). There are churches containing the bones of St Lazarus, icons painted by St Luke and monasteries commemorating visits by other disciples.
But this Christian heritage, Europe’s heritage, has been systematically desecrated since 1974. Over 650 monasteries and churches in the occupied area have been destroyed, turned into stables or toilets. Irreplaceable icons and other works of art have been defaced or looted, often sold at auction houses around the world. Greek place names have all been changed to Turkish. In short, every attempt has been made to obliterate the rich Greek and Christian heritage of the northern areas of Cyprus. Even today, archeological sites are being bulldozed to make way for militaristic statues and monuments to bolster the existence of the illegal regime in the occupied area.
It is important to appreciate that there had never been separate Greek or Turkish areas in Cyprus. Greeks lived throughout the island even after the Ottoman Turks seized Cyprus in 1578 from the Venetians. Prior to the invasions of 1974, the Christian Greeks and their comparatively new neighbours, the Muslim Ottoman Turks, lived side by side in villages and towns across the island. The ethnic cleansing of Greek Cypriots from the northern part of the island by the Turkish army was in order to enable the Turkish Cypriot community, which in 1974 made up just 18 percent of the population to create their own geographical area in 38 percent of the island.
Turkey has brought in over 180,000 illegal immigrants from Turkey to re-populate Greek Cypriot lands to engineer a change in the demographic composition of the occupied area. Before the invasion, land owned by Greeks amounted to about 82 percent of the occupied area. Turkey’s pseudo state issued illegal title-deeds and gave Greek Cypriot property to colonists from Turkey or sold the property to developers using bogus title-deeds. Greek Cypriot homes and lands have been concreted over to try to create a new political reality on the ground. No Greeks Cypriots are allowed to return to their property or live in their ancestral lands.
These actions represent disregard for the basic EU principles of freedom of movement by Turkey, a country that aspires to EU membership. Recent court decisions such as that in the UK of Apostolides v Orams emphasise the dangers in buying stolen Greek Cypriot land. In that case an English couple have been ordered to demolish a villa they built on stolen land. They risk losing their property in the UK to pay for damages and court fees.
We all owe the preservation of Cyprus’ cultural heritage to the people of Europe, who deserve to share in the culture and history of Cyprus. 35 years of vandalism must not be permitted to triumph over 3,000 years of European culture.