The destruction of Cyprus’ cultural heritage in the occupied part of the island was highlighted by the Conservative MPs Matthew Offord and David Burrowes during a House of Commons debate earlier in the week.
Their statements were made in the presence of the Secretary of State for Culture, the Rt Hon Karen Bradley MP, during the second reading of the Cultural Property (Armed Conflicts) bill. The aim of the bill is to enable the United Kingdom to implement the Hague Convention for the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict of 1954.
Mr Offord said that “Cyprus has witnessed its cultural and religious heritage fall prey to the policy of pillage, destruction and desecration instituted after the illegal invasion of the island in 1974, and during the subsequent and continuing occupation.”
The Hendon MP, one of the closest parliamentarian friends of Cyprus in the UK, spoke of churches, monasteries, archaeological sites, libraries, museums and private collections of religious art and antiquities in the occupied areas of Cyprus having been “systematically looted”.
He also pointed to the numerous antiquities from the northern part of Cyprus that have for years “flooded” the art treasure market of the world, as well as to removed mosaics, frescoes and thousands of icons, which are now “practically lost in the international market of smuggled art works.”
Mr Offord made a special reference to the apsidal mosaic of “inestimable” value at the Panagia Kanakaria church, which was removed, stolen and broken up in 1979. After pieces remerged in 1988 and the involvement of the notorious Turkish art dealer Aydin Dikmen was established, these pieces have now been returned and are exhibited at the Byzantine Museum in Nicosia.
The Conservative MP told the House that since the 1974 Turkish invasion of Cyprus 77 churches have been converted into mosques after being stripped of all icons and church furnishings. “The others have been pillaged, destroyed, used as stables, warehouses, garages, arsenals, mortuaries, hotels, art galleries and night clubs or simply abandoned to their fate… That number, however, does not include 50 sacred buildings whose condition is still not known because they are located in zones under direct military control, and others that have been demolished,” said Matthew Offord.
The MP also congratulated his constituent Doros Partasides, a well-known UK Cypriot photographer whose work has documented churches on the island. As Mr Offord said, “his invaluable work documents the destruction that has occurred over many years”. An exhibition with these photographs by Mr Partasides was hosted in the Parliament a few years ago.
In his contribution to the debate David Burrowes, MP for Enfield-Southgate and Parliamentary Chairman of the Conservative Friends of Cyprus, said that along with Mr Offord he has seen the “appalling” acts of desecration and pillaging that have taken place in the northern part of Cyprus.
Mr Burrowes said there was a link between the trafficking of human beings and the trafficking of cultural property. “There is the same disregard for people, for their faith, for their community and for their identity,” he said, adding that the issue at hand was human dignity.
He called for the UK to contribute to the voluntary fund administered by UNESCO and praised the work done by Tasoula Hadjitofi, a refugee from Famagusta, who through her organisation ‘Walk of Truth’ tries to restore pillaged treasures in areas of conflict and provide routes to reconciliation.
In his closing remarks, David Burrowes MP referred to his numerous constituents of Cypriot descent: “A considerable number of Cypriots live here in the UK, who have seen for themselves wanton destruction and pillaging of their heritage. That is why it is so important that we join together and make sure that this long-fought battle to ratify The Hague convention comes to fruition. We look forward to the unification of Cyprus in the long term, but in the meantime, we must make sure that people are held to account when they seek to profit from the proceeds of crimes of destruction.”