When Turkish President, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, turned Istanbul’s famous Hagia Sophia Basilica back into a mosque in July 2020, many protests arose worldwide. Even Pope Francis, at his July 12, 2020 Angelus, said he was “very saddened.”
But there is a country, not far from Turkey, where many churches—not just one—have been converted into mosques: Cyprus, the largest island of the Eastern Mediterranean Sea, at the crossroads of Europe, Asia and Africa.
“In the occupied part of Cyprus, starting from 1974,” says Ioannis Eliades, “at least one church in each village has been converted into a mosque, namely the majority of the Orthodox churches.” Eliades is the Director of the Byzantine Museum of the Archbishop Makarios III Foundation, located in Nicosia, Cyprus’ capital. He explains that such a conversion does not require any substantial changes: “they wall up the south side, then they add the mikrab [the niche oriented toward Mecca, where to turn to pray] there. And once a church has become a mosque, it is no longer given back to its legitimate owners.”
That’s why Eliades launches such a harsh accusation at Turkey: “the politics of the Ottomans are the same over the centuries: convert churches into mosques without any respect.”
But there are also churches in Cyprus that met a worse fate—being destroyed—similar to the churches in Mosul, which Pope Francis observed with dismay during his March 5-8, 2021, trip to Iraq. But the debris of the Cypriot churches has always been far less newsworthy.
To be fair, someone took an interest in them, explains Eliades:
The Parliament of the European Union has also allocated a sum of money for the restoration of some churches, thanks to some visits by delegations of MEPs to Cyprus, publications and conferences on this subject, both in the European Parliament and elsewhere.
Therefore, thanks to this intervention and the UN mediation, “some churches have been saved, about two or three every year since 2012. But in the last year, everything stopped, because of the pandemic and the more rigid attitude of the new president of Northern Cyprus [Ersin Tatar, nationalist and winner of the October 2020 elections].”
The churches restored up to now are “a few dozen,” Eliades estimates. “Anyway,” he adds, “even after the restoration, the faithful are not allowed to use them regularly to hold celebrations, as if the churches were no longer their property.” In the church of the Virgin Odigitria in Trachini, until a few years ago, the unique living presence within its walls were the birds that smeared the floor. It has been one of the first churches to be restored. Ioannes was baptized there, more than half a century ago. But shortly after his baptism, in 1974, Turkey invaded the northern part of Cyprus, where only a few hundred Greek-Cypriots live now. “But until 1976, two years after the invasion, there were still 5,000,” Ioannis notes.
Cyprus today is a country, if you will, mutilated in the ‘body’, its territory, and in ‘the soul,’ the Orthodox Christian religious roots of the majority of its population. And here it could be helpful to recall that thanks to its long history, dating back to the Bronze Age, Cyprus boasts an enormous cultural heritage, marked by the many civilizations which flourished here along the centuries: Assyrians, Byzantine, Egyptians, Greek, Hebrew, Minoan, Otomani, Persian, Phoenician and Roman. The predominantly Greek and Orthodox national identity took shape in the Middle Ages, in spite of being subjected to the rule of several foreign states, until British domination in 1878, and eventual independence in 1960.
The Turkish invasion launched in 1974, at the height of a long period of political tensions between Greek-Cypriots and Turkish-Cypriots, resulted in an unprecedented situation in Cyprus, which had never been before divided into two parts. Finally, in 1983, the occupied part of the island became the so-called “Turkish republic of Northern Cyprus,” even if recognized as a sovereign nation only by Ankara.
Turkey has not only violated the independence and integrity of Cyprus by ignoring resolutions of the United Nations and the European Union, but also has started the destruction of the Christian artistic and cultural heritage of Northern Cyprus, through forcing the expulsion of the Greek-speaking Orthodox population and settling Turkish Muslim settlers. The goal, so to speak, is to “turkify” places, towns and villages, changing their names and erasing the traces of the Greek and Christian history, even though Turkish Cypriots had never been majority before 1974, not even in the north. Therefore, it’s easy to recognize that the current political situation prevents any attempt to find a solution for the disappearance of an immense cultural heritage.
Conversion, destruction, debris
In fact, more than 500 churches and monasteries have been looted, destroyed, vandalized or converted for other uses: more than 15,000 icons of saints, innumerable sacred liturgical vessels, gospels and other objects of great value have literally vanished, according to the detailed update titled “Cypriot Byzantine Heritage in danger: destruction and illicit trafficking of artworks”, published by Ioannis Eliades in the “Bulletin the Spanish society of Byzantinistica” in December 2020.
It is sad to read that the destruction of churches has also been recent, such as St. Catherine in Gerani, demolished in 2008 to use its debris as embankments for new buildings in Famagusta. The same fate occurred in 2011 to St. Thekla in Vokolida, because it was “an obstacle” to the sea view from a newly built Turkish hotel. In many other cases, the collapse of churches depends only on having been neglected for more than four decades, after the plunder of doors, windows, roofs, floors and so on. Even the Monastery of Virgin Mary Avgasida in Milia, Famagusta was demolished, and the cells of the monastery are used as animal stalls.
Again, many churches have been turned into warehouses for various materials: tires (St. George in Askeia and St. Artemon in Afanteia), potatoes from neighboring farms (St. Antony in Leonarison), building materials (St. Eirine in Kyrenia). Among the different uses of the converted churches include museums and theaters, and even a mortuary (Transfiguration of the Savior church in Chryseliou) and a Turkish propaganda museum (St. Romanos Maronite church in Vouni).
In addition, many churches, after being looted, were rented or sold to private individuals and turned into Voong commercial enterprises such as hotels (the Monastery of St. Anastasia in Lapethos), Ottoman baths (the medieval church of Saint George of the Latins), residences (the Virgin Mary church in Engomi), an old furniture repair (St. Luke in Lefkosia), a painting workshop (the Byzantine church of Virgin Chrysotrimithiotissa in Trimithi). There is even a nightclub (St. John’s Knight in Famagusta), a parking lot (St. Andronikos in Kazafani), a dog shelter (the St. Anthony’s catholic church in Kontea) and so on.
As mentioned above, a large chapter is that of the churches turned into mosques, up to the present day, for the many of settlers transported from Anatolia in eastern Turkey to the Greek villages and towns of Northern Cyprus.
“Today, among the Northern Cyprus population, the settlers transplanted from Turkey are more than twice as many as the people originally from Cyprus,” Ioannis Eliades explains. And generally, he adds, “the settlers are more fanatical, more sensitive to nationalist propaganda. Turkish Cypriots from Cyprus are happy to see Greek Cypriots returning to a church from time to time to celebrate Mass. The settlers instead look at the surviving churches like at a sign of the presence of an enemy.”
Looking forward to a hypothetical reunification of Cyprus, “the current situation is very critical,” from Eliades’ point of view; “Turkey only wants a two-state solution in Cyprus, or at most a two-state federation, in order to control also the Southern Cyprus. Reunification is a difficult prospect as long as Erdogan is in charge. There is always hope, we must fight, but I see a lot of pessimism everywhere.”
On top of that, after the Turkish invasion Northern Cyprus became one of the most militarized areas of the world, hosting about 45,000 Turkish soldiers. To house them, even churches (Prophet Elias in Marathovounos, St. George in Kythrea, St. Barbara in Kyrenia), monasteries (Acheiropoietos in Lampousa, St. Panteleimon in Myrtou, St. Euphemianos in Lysi, St. Spyridon in Tremetousia, St. John Chrysostom in Koutsoventis) or even whole Greek and Maronite villages (Pyroi, Voni, Askeia, Marko, Tympou, Asomatos, Agia Marina Skylloura, Kontemenos, Loutros) were turned into and used as barracks, besides the hotels and properties of Greek refugees.
The devastation of the historical memory of Cyprus has not spared even the dead, because many cemeteries have been destroyed or damaged through their abandonment. In 2017, in the Greek Orthodox cemetery in Keryneia, a photoshoot of half-naked models was organized by a Turkish fashion house.
Illicit trafficking of antiquities
Finally, the last chapter of the history is the illicit trafficking of antiquities fostered by the Turkish invasion. According to Ioannis Eliades, “the biggest part of the Christian artistic heritage was stolen from North Cyprus to foreign countries in the first decade after the war: a priceless treasure of frescoes, mosaics, icons, iconostasis, furniture, books, minor art pieces and so on, belonging today to private collections in Turkey, Russia, Switzerland, Holland, UK, and even as far as the US, Australia, Japan.”
The list included even the oldest existing Early Christian wall mosaic in Cyprus, dating to the 6th century, from the apse of the Virgin Mary Kanakaria church in Lythrangomi, fragmented into pieces and removed. A famous case, discovered in Nicosia in 1979, was that of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees in Cyprus, Prince Alfred zur Lippe, who was able to export illegally many antiquities and icons, before the scandal was revealed. Another infamous name is that of Aydin Dikmen, a Turkish smuggler. When Interpol and German Police raided in September and October 1997 his apartments in Munich, Germany, they confiscated more than 300 works of art (icons, mosaics, manuscripts and frescoes) from occupied Cyprus. After being identified as originating from 50 different occupied churches, they were repatriated from Germany in 2013 and 2015.
The Byzantine Museum of the Archbishop Makarios III Foundation (AMF), inaugurated in 1982 and now directed by Ioannis Eliades, is the headquarters of the work by the Cypriot Orthodox Church to preserve and promote the Christian-Orthodox heritage of the island. A substantial part of this commitment is focused on Northern Cyprus.
“We document the disappearance of works of art,” says Eliades, “we restore those recovered, we organize conferences to make them known. We also visit the abandoned churches, to assess their state of conservation, even if now it is not easy to travel north, because due to the pandemic, there are crazy restrictions on travel. Otherwise, in other periods, it is usually possible to visit the abandoned monuments without checks, even if there have also been cases of checks or impediments by the police of Northern Cyprus.” But the saddest thing, adds Eliades, is to observe the wickedness of those who, for no reason, take away the windows of the churches, so as to allow them to be dirtied by the birds.
Finally, t is necessary to say that in Northern Cyprus there are churches that the authorities decided to keep in good condition, together with all the artwork they contain. Probably, explains Eliades, “they are interested in exploiting them as tourist attractions, being the oldest and most important churches. Perhaps it was the tourists who suggested that they were well preserved. The list includes the St. Mamas church and monastery in Morfou, the Bellapais Abbey, the church of the Most Holy Mother of God in Trikomo and some others.”
Nevertheless, it is a pity that many other equally beautiful and important churches in Northern Cyprus have met a much worse fate, while in the free Cyprus, all the mosques are in good condition. And although all the Turkish-Cypriot population, with the 1974 war, moved from south to north, now some of these mosques are used by Islamic immigrants from Syria or Pakistan.
Despite everything he has seen and knows, Eliades holds no feelings of anger or desire for revenge. “Mosques are also a cultural heritage of my country, so we have to preserve them,” he says without hesitation.
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