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Cyprus: Portrait of a Christianity Obliterated

Sandro Magister

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In the northern part of the island, occupied by Turkey, the churches have become stables or mosques.

The diary of a trip beyond the wall.

ROMA, March 9 2006 -- The island of Cyprus was the first destination of the "special mission" that the Holy Spirit entrusted to Paul and Barnabas, according to what is written in the Acts of the Apostles, in chapter 13.

On the island they found a Roman governor, Sergius Paulus, "an intelligent man who wanted to hear the word of God and believed, deeply shaken by the teaching of the Lord."

But if Paul and Barnabas were to return to Cyprus today, to the northern part of the island, they would find not the Romans as governors, but the Turks.

And instead of a Christianity being born, they would find a dying Christianity, with the churches and monasteries in ruin, or else transformed into stables, hotels, and mosques.

This is documented in a startling report from Luigi Geninazzi, who was sent to Cyprus by "Avvenire," the newspaper of the Italian bishops' conference.

Cyprus became part of the European Union on May 1, 2004. But this was true only for the southern part of the island, which is Greek and Christian.

The northern part was occupied by Turkey in 1974, with 40,000 soldiers. The Turkish occupation caused death, destruction, and a forced relocation of populations. About 200,000 Greek Cypriots of the Christian Orthodox faith who lived in the north of the island fled to the south. And likewise, the Turkish Cypriots of the south, Muslims, moved to the north.

In 1983 Turkey consolidated the occupation by creating a Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus, which is internationally recognized only by the government of AnkarA: 180,000 persons live there, 100,000 of whom are colonists originally from Anatolia.

A wall guarded by the blue helmets of the United Nations divides the two parts of the island and cuts through the capital, Nicosia. In April of 2004, the UN placed before a referendum a plan of confederation between the two states, but this was rejected by the Greek Cypriots of the south, who are four times as numerous as the Turkish Cypriots of the north.

The Islamization of the north of the island has been concretized in the destruction of all that was Christian. Yannis Eliades, director of the Byzantine Museum of Nicosia, calculates that 25,000 icons have disappeared from the churches in the zone occupied by the Turks.

For a Turkey that aspires to enter the European Union, its actions in the north of Cyprus give a terrible impression of itself.

And what it has done in destroying the Christian presence begun by Paul and Barnabas is described in the report that follows, published in "Avvenire" on Sunday, February 26:

"They did not even spare the stone altar..."

Luigi Geninazzi

Europe ends here, in the most beautiful island of the Mediterranean, torn by a wall that splits it in two. Europe ends abruptly along a barrier of barbed wire, cement, and military turrets that splits Cyprus along its entire width and divides Nicosia, a capital wounded in its ancient heart.

For the UN, which guards over it with its blue helmets, it is the "green line." But here the people continue to call it the "Attila line," from the name that the Turks gave to the invasion.

The scourge has left its marks. It has struck Cyprus, the site of the most ancient Christian community on European soil, in its artistic, cultural, and religious treasury: stupendous Byzantine and Romanesque churches, imposing monasteries, mosaics and frescoes of inestimable value. It is a heritage that in the northern part of the island, under Turkish occupation, has been sacked, violated, and destroyed.

To realize this it is enough to cross the "Attila line" at the checkpoint of Nicosia, and there you are in the so-called Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus, which greets the visitor with a large banner on which is written a topsy-turvy welcome: "How happy I am to be a Turk!" (a famous phrase of Kemal Ataturk). The nationalist pride of the descendents of the Ottoman empire has also modified the natural countryside, carving the crescent moon and the red star on the side of the Pentadattilos mountains, which dominate the wide plains.

The Turkish flag billows on the façade of the church of Agia Paraskevi, in the once Greek Orthodox village of Angastina. A sign says that work is underway to transform it into a mosque. The bell tower, which no longer bears a cross, is a strange minaret with the loudspeaker of the muezzin fixed upon an archway.

Christodoulos, the young archeologist accompanying me, is visibly shaken: "I was baptized here," he says in a voice hoarse with emotion. He is one of the 200,000 Greek Cypriot refugees who, thirty years ago, lived in the north of the island and were chased out of their homes.

Christodoulos kneels on the spot where he was once baptized and lights a candle. The Turkish construction workers, squatting in front of the apse for their lunch break, look at him curiously: "Every time I come back to this area, it's always worse," he sighs.

We stop at Trachoni, where a jewel of the Renaissance once stood, the church of the Panagia, Our Lady. Now only the walls are left; the interior bears the signs of vandalism that has not spared even the stone altar, the pieces of which have ended up in a hole dug recently to search for who knows what treasure.

Ours is a sad pilgrimage that at every stop adds to one's outrage and disbelief, a via dolorosa that retraces the places of Christian memory at risk of disappearing. At the village of Peristerona, on the road to Famagosta, the medieval monastery of Saint Anastasia (see photo) is being used as a stable, with the cows chewing their cud amid what remains of the ancient cells. The tombs of the cemetery have been profaned, and the gravestones broken.

We leave the countryside behind and go to the coast. Here many of the churches have been turned into restaurants, bars, and nightclubs, for the enjoyment of the tourists. At the top of the rock of Lapethos, which juts out over the sea, the church and convent of Agia Anastasia have become a sumptuous hotel with a swimming pool dug into the cloister, and a casino under the bell tower.

Almost the entire artistic patrimony of the Orthodox Church in the territory occupied by the Turks -- 520 buildings between churches, chapels, and monasteries -- has been sacked, demolished, or disfigured. Only three churches and one monastery, the monastery of Saint Barnabas, which has been turned into a museum, are in a more or less dignified state.

"The ruin is before our eyes, but the European Union prefers to look the other way," the Cypriot foreign minister, George Iacovou, bitterly tells us. "The only hope is that, in the course of negotiations for Turkey's adhesion to the EU, someone might pull out the dossier of shame."

The Byzantine Academy of Nicosia has gathered detailed and meticulous documentation on the occupied churches in Cyprus. And for two years an attempt has been made at religious dialogue, with the support of the Orthodox bishop Nikiforos of the historic monastery of Kykko: "We have met with the Muslim leaders headed by Lefka, and I told them that respect for our places of worship is the basis for cooperation." Nikiforos is moderately optimistic: "I encountered a lot of understanding. Errors have been made on both sides; we must overcome the divisions of the past and walk together."

But the last word belongs to the politicians. Huseyn Ozel, a government spokesman for the so-called Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus, displays great cordiality with the foreign journalist. The destroyed and sacked churches? "There was a war, and bad things happened on both sides," he explains.

I point out to him that most of the mosques in Greek Cypriot territory have been restored, while his government has authorized the transformation of churches into restaurants and hotels, an insult to the sentiment of believers. "They did this to keep the buildings from falling into ruin, and anyway, these are decisions made by the preceding government, which I do not share," Ozel counters.

I insist: what do you have to say about the churches that, still today, are being turned into mosques? The Turkish Cypriot functionary spreads his arms wide: "It is an Ottoman custom..."

It as a tradition that, unfortunately, continues. An unsettling calling card for a Turkey that aspires to enter the European club.

The Greek Orthodox bishop: "Europe, intervene!"

An interview with Chrisostomos Englistriota

In Cyprus, the head of the Church has always been an ethnarch, too, a leader of the people. This directly political role was exercised by the famous archbishop Makarios, the charismatic leader of the rebellion against the English domination during the 1950's, and the first president of the independent republic of Cyprus.

"Our Church doesn't practice politics anymore, but its authority has not diminished," recalls the bishop of Paphos, Chrisostomos Englistriota. Since His Beatitude Chrisostomos I was struck by a grave illness, the bishop of Paphos has carried out his functions as leader of the Holy Synod of the Orthodox Church on the island.

Q: Your Excellency, Cyprus remains divided. Can the Greek Orthodox Church foster dialogue between the parties?

A: "It is a situation that saddens us deeply, the result of a completely illegal military occupation. A true dialogue is impossible, because the Turkish Cypriots do not enjoy any autonomy, the last word belongs to the government of Ankara."

Q: Are there contacts among the religious exponents?

A: "Some of our bishops have met with the leaders of the Turkish Cypriot Islamic community. It's important to us to have good relations with them, but then when it comes time to discuss concrete matters, like the problem of the sacking and profanation of our churches, they don't know what to say, they refer everything to the political authorities."

Q: Have you tried to raise the question in international circles?

A: "Yes, of course. We have repeatedly turned to the European Union to ask for their intervention. The last time was in the autumn of 2004, after Cyprus entered the EU."

Q: The results?

A: "Nothing so far. My personal conviction is that the European governments should exert pressure on Turkey, above all in this phase of the opening of negotiations for the entry of Ankara into the Union. But they don't want to take advantage of this opportunity. And so the more time passes, the more our sacred places in the northern part of Cyprus are falling into ruin. The Turks want to destroy every trace of Hellenism and of Christianity. Only strong international pressure can stop them."

Read the entire article on the Chiesa website (new window will open).

Posted: 10-Mar-06



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