Speech by Dr. Eleni Theocharous MEP, Seminar hostess to the European Parliament ‘‘Religious Freedom and Holy Sites in the Republic of Cyprus”

14 April 2010




Esteemed Ladies and Gentlemen,

Dear Colleagues,

I have the honour to be hosting this conference, on the violations of religious rights and the protection of Holy Sites in the occupied part of Cyprus.

First of all, I would like to thank the Honourable Former President of the European Parliament and distinguished European, Dr Hans Ger Poettering for being with us today, holding this event under his auspices and taking the time to prepare an address.

I am grateful to His Beatitude, the current Primate of the Orthodox Church of Nea Justiniani and All Cyprus Archbishop Chrysostomos II, as well as to the Representatives of the other Churches of Cyprus, for coming all the way from the island to join us and contribute their wisdom and experience.

This seminar has been jointly organized by the Representative of the Church of Cyprus in Brussels, His Eminence Bishop of Neapolis Porfyrios, the Society Commission of the Conference of European Churches and my Office.

So, I would like to thank Bishop Porfyrios and the Society Commission of the Conference of European Churches, especially and Ms Elizabeta Kitanovic.

And off course, I would like to congratulate my advisors Yiannos, Mary and Lewni for their hard and effective work. 

The theme of our conference is Religious freedom and Holy Sites in Cyprus, an issue which is causally linked with human rights, and the destruction of the religious heritage and monuments in the occupied part of Cyprus.

Ladies and Gentlemen,

Yes, Cyprus, an independent State since 1960, a member of the United Nations and the European Union, still remains under military occupation. Since the summer of 1974, when Turkey invaded the island, almost 40% of the territory of Cyprus has been occupied by Turkish troops, whilst in November 1983 Turkey proceeded in the proclamation of an “independent State” in the area. This action was condemned by UN Security Council resolutions 541 and 550. In accordance with these landmark resolutions, the so called “Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus” is illegal and internationally must not been recognized.

Since 1974, the legal inhabitants of the occupied area, mostly Greek Orthodox, Catholics and Armenians, were forced to flee, moving to the southern, free part of the island. They now live away from their homes, as refugees or internally displaced persons and are being denied the right of return, thus, being deprived all their basic human rights. 

During the summer of 1974 and the years that followed, Turkey committed countless crimes against human beings and international law violations, which remain unpunished to this day. Since then, within the Turkish occupied part of the island, Christian Orthodox, Catholic and Armenian properties have been substantially damaged. The Turkish occupied territories include 514 churches, chapels, and monasteries.

At 1974, 25.000 Christians stayed behind, and remained as enclaved in the occupied areas. According to the Third Vienna Agreement in August 1975, these people should have been protected and their human rights should have been respected. Instead, with terrorist actions including murder, rape, imprisonment, and violent evictions from their homes and farms, they were forced to flee and replaced with settlers from Anatolia. Now only 250 Christians remain in the occupied area. 

Christianity was originally brought to Cyprus by the Apostles Paul, Barnabas and Mark in the first century. Their first journey to Cyprus took place at 46 AD. The Church of Cyprus was under the jurisdiction of the Patriarchate of Jerusalem until 325 AD. Apostle Barnabas is considered to be the first bishop of Cyprus.

The Church of Cyprus is one of the Autocephalous Churches of the Orthodox Christian Communion and its territory covers the whole island of Cyprus.

Its Autocephaly was established at the Council of Ephesus in 431 AD, overriding the claims of the Patriarch of Antiochia. 

In 478 AD, the grave of St. Barnabas was found, with a copy of the Gospel of Matthew on his relics. The Autocephaly of the Church of Cyprus was confirmed later that year by the Roman Emperor Zenon.

Although, through the centuries the island has been occupied by various conquerors, the church has retained its independence and its autocephalous status. 

Cyprus, an island inhabited by Greeks since 2000 BC, was part of the Byzantine Empire since the seventh century. After the Arab invasion of the island, the people and the church were forced to flee to Hellespont. In Asia Minor the Greek Cypriots, under the protection of Emperor Justinian II, established a new city called Nova Justiniana ("Nea Justiniani") in honour of the emperor. 

In 698, the Arabs were driven out of Cyprus, so the Archbishop and the Cypriots returned to the island. The Primate of the Church retained the title of Archbishop of Nea Ioustiniani and All Cyprus. With the occupation of Cyprus by the Crusades from 1191 to 1571, the Orthodox hierarchy found itself subordinated to the occupying French and Venetian kings, who forced a reduction in the number of Orthodox bishops from 14 to 4. 

On 1571, the Ottomans conquered Cyprus. For three centuries the island was under the occupancy of the Ottoman Empire and the lives, the dignity and the properties of the Orthodox people were always at the disposal of the Ottomans. 

Under the Ottoman ruling practices, the Christian population of Cyprus (Rum millet) was considered a separate nation. Under these circumstances, the Orthodox Church played a leading role, as it was the only legal Christian Church of the island. The Ottoman authority considered the Archbishop as the political leader, the ETHNARCHIS of this Christian Nation, and granted him the authority and responsibility to collect the taxes. The news about the revolution for Greek Independence in 1821 resulted in the slaughter of Archbishop Kyprianos and many other members of the Cypriot Orthodox hierarchy, clergy, and laity

In 1878, after the British assumed control over Cyprus, the Church achieved more freedom in its religious practices, including the right to use the churches’ bells. At the time we also saw an increase in the number of Armenians residing within Cyprus as a result of the Armenian Genocide that took place in 1915. Yet, the British interfered strenuously in church activities, resulting in an uprising by the Church in October 1931, after which the British imposed additional restrictions on the election of the Archbishop. The British occupation lasted until 1960 when Cyprus gained its independence with the election of Archbishop Makarios as the first President of the newly established Republic of Cyprus. 

Throughout its history, Cyprus has been a society primarily consisting of the Greek Orthodox (with 80% of the population), yet throughout the years other Christian minorities also grew and added to the pluralist identity of the Cypriot society and enriching the Cypriot culture. This includes the Latin Catholics, Maronites, Armenians, and Anglicans, and off course the Turkish and Greek Muslims. During the last 20 years, more than eighty thousands Russian and Serbs Orthodox and more than fifty thousands of Catholics Asians, live in Cyprus.

Religion, culture and language were never instruments which one could utilise in order to trigger a conflict in Cyprus.

However, the Christians were suffering by atrocities, organised and performed by the Muslims. During the last 2 centuries, all communities were isolated within their own creeds, mixing mainly amongst themselves and preserving their cultures, using Greek as the language to communicate. The continuous constitutional problems that the Republic of Cyprus faced after Independence and the efforts of the Government to reform the Constitution and solve the problems, sparked the Turkish Cypriot mutiny and rebellion. In fact, the rebellion was part of the Turkish Strategy to re-gain Cyprus.

The Republic of Cyprus survived by the support of the international Community and the United Nations and resisted the attacks of Turkey for 10 years. The coup d'état of the Greek Junta gave a pretext to Turkey, which was preparing an invasion of the island, time ago to commit this international crime.

Now, there are ongoing negotiations for a peaceful settlement of the Cyprus issue. We hope that these negotiations will lead to the implementation of Human Rights and the principles upon the EU is founded, for all Cypriots, for all European citizens living legally in Cyprus.

Human Rights have been founded as the legal, social, political, moral and ethic cornerstones of civilised societies. Religious rights constitute the spiritual identity of all civilisations and a system of principles and values upon which both the EU and International Institutions rely. By respecting religious freedoms and human rights we respect our own civilization and ourselves. The violation of religious human rights is seriously pathogenic and throws the global ethic and moral systems of balance.

The Edict of Milan constitutes the main pillar of our religious freedom. It was granted by Emperor Constantine the Great in the West and Licinius Augustus in the East, in 313AD and safeguarded the religious freedom throughout the Roman Empire. The Republic of Cyprus fully respects religious rights in Cyprus. All people, living in the free areas of the Republic of Cyprus, can freely, and without any restrictions, perform and exercise their religious practices and at the same time, the Cyprus Government does its best in order to preserve and restore the religious monuments, churches and mosques, located in the areas which are under the control of the Government.

Ladies and Gentlemen,

Should one pose the question of what is the meaning and the content of religious rights nowadays, we could answer as follows: it is the duty of a civilized society on both, State and EU levels, to protect the right of every person to freely express their faith and perform Mass and worshiping irrespective of their race or national identity. We must note that religious freedom has multiple dimensions: the Legal, the humanitarian and the cultural one. At the same time, all these values and principles, and especially religious rights, enrich and constitute the ethic backbone of our legal constitutional orders as they have been developed throughout the years on the International and the European level. These values and principles do not constitute an “abstract concept”, but they have their own practical meaning as they form a code for state and individual perpetual behaviour, which should be internationally respected.

Today we are going to discuss one of the crimes committed by Turkey in Cyprus, after the 1974 invasion.

A crime against the Global Civilisation, a crime against humankind and against the European Fundamental Principles and Values.

Our distinguished speakers will present us today with the destruction of the Christian Monuments in the occupied area and the violation of human rights and other atrocities against Christianity in this region.

Religious and cultural monuments in the occupied part of Cyprus constitute part of the world's history and civilization and so it is vital to ensure that they are protected and respected by the occupying power. In this respect as time is running out, I call upon the President of the Commission, Mr Emmanuel Barrosso, to undertake and put forward an official initiative in order to save the religious heritage in the occupied part of Cyprus and restore the violated human rights and especially the religious freedom of Christians, including the Orthodox, the Armenians and the Maronites but also the Turkish Alevis. 

I look forward to hearing everyone’s input, views and information about the situation in the occupied area, concerning religious freedom and the destruction of Holy Sites.

I am particularly hopeful for our cooperation on this immensely important issue and I wish our conference today will lead to a concrete step towards unveiling the reality and presenting the truth.

I thank you humbly for your attention.







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