Last week in Washington, D.C., more pressure was exerted on Turkey to recognize the widespread depredation and pillage of religious sites and objects in the northern third of Cyprus. This third, otherwise known as the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus–an illegal, unilaterally declared state recognized by Ankara only–is the land Turkey seized in 1974 and still holds under military occupation.
On Tuesday, July 21–one day after the 35-year anniversary of Turkey’s first invasion on the island in 1974–the U.S. Helsinki Commission released a report for Congress. This 50-page report is entitled “Destruction of Cultural Property in the Northern Part of Cyprus and Violations of International Law” and is presently available online at csce.gov.
The report roundly acknowledges what the government of Cyprus and the Autocephalous Greek Orthodox Church of Cyprus, along with many scholars and journalists, have already observed: that “a plethora of archaeological and religious sites have been damaged” and that they are still “in peril.”
The report notes that “500 Greek Orthodox churches and chapels have been pillaged, vandalized, or demolished; 133 churches, chapels, and monasteries have been desecrated; the whereabouts of 15,000 paintings are unknown; 77 churches have been converted into mosques, 28 are being used by the Turkish military forces as hospitals or camps; and 13 are used as agricultural barns.”
Concluding remarks in the report find that “under conventional and customary law, Turkey, as an occupying power, bears responsibility for acts against cultural property.” International humanitarian law pertaining to the protection of religious sites and objects is referenced throughout the report. Under the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia (ICTY), for instance, and the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court (ICC), destruction of cultural property is considered a war crime.
The Commission’s report is notable not for presenting new information, but for being an additional witness, in another forum and before another audience, to the myriad acts of destruction and theft which have occurred, and continue to occur, in the northern third of Cyprus–and under the constant eye of the Turkish military, a force that is 43,000 soldiers strong on the island. Several of the ruined churches were, or still are, within Turkish military camps; their destruction could not have happened without the military’s help and/or compliance.Â >>>