In the frameworks of the 31st Assembly of the United Nations on Human Rights held in Geneva a special session took place on 11 March 2016 under the title: “Interreligious Communications Freedom of Religious and Peace building”. The event was organized by the Swedish Permanent Mission to the U.N. and participated His Grace Bishop Porfyrios of Neapolis on behalf of His Beatitude the Archbishop of Nova Justiniana and all Cyprus Mr. Chrysostomos II, the Mufti of Cyprus Mr. Talip Atalay, the Special Rapporteur of the United Nations for Human Rights Dr. H. Bielefeldt and the Director of the Swedish Institute in Alexandria P. Weiderud. The event was welcomed by the Swedish Permanent Representative Ms. M. Bard and coordinated by the facilidation of the dialogue of Religious Leaders in Cyprus, Ms. Salpy Weiderud.
All of the speakers presented their experiences through last seven years interfaith dialogue of the Religious Leaders of Cyprus which is taking place under the auspices of the Swedish Embassy in Cyprus. Through the speaker’s presentations they were presented the positive results of the dialogue and its difficulties. There were even concrete examples of failed initiatives of the Religious Leaders due to refusal of cooperation by the occupying Turkish army and the occupation regime. Reference was made to the expectations that the Religious Leaders of Cyprus have for the acceptance and implementation of specific proposals aiming the restoration of religious freedom in Cyprus by the negotiating political leaders Mr. N. Anastasiadis and Mr. M. Akinzi.
Dr. H. Bielefeldt, UN expert for Human Rights, was honored for his contribution to the ongoing dialogue. During his six-year term, which ends next July, he contributed and supported vividly and practically the dialogue between the Religious Leaders of Cyprus. At the end the religious leaders offered to Mr. H. Bielefeldt a symbolic gift.
The Permanent Representative of Cyprus to the U.N. Mr. Andreas Ignatius, members from other missions to Greece, Sweden, Austria, Finland, Turkey, the Holy See, as well as representatives from non-governmental organizations participated at the event.
The speech of His Grace Bishop Porfyrios of Neapolis follows:
May I first express my warm thanks to the Office of High Commission for Human Rights for organizing this event and their kind invitation, to the Special Rapporteur for Human Rights Dr. Heiner Bielefeldt for presiding this historic event and to His Excellency, the Ambassador of Sweden, Mr. Jan Knutsson, for his government’s financial support not only of today’s event but also of the dialogue among religious leaders that has been going on in Cyprus for the past five years. I would also like to thank my fellow speakers, Dr. Talip Atalay and Mrs Diane Alai and all of you for your presence and participation. I hope and pray that our meeting here today will be beneficial and fruitful as far as the restoration of human rights and religious freedom in my home country of Cyprus is concerned.
My country, located in the south-eastern corner of the Mediterranean, stands at the crossroads of three continents. It is characterized by its multicultural nature since, throughout its ten-thousand year history, the island was conquered by or became the home to Greeks, Assyrians, Persians, Egyptians, Romans, Franks, Venetians, Turks, Armenians, Maronites and British subjects. Before 1974, some 82% of the island’s population were Greek Cypriots, a number that also included the small Maronite, Armenian and Latin religious groups. The remaining 18% were Turkish Cypriots. In terms of religious faith, the Greek Cypriots are Christian Orthodox, the Maronites and Latins are Catholic, the Armenians belong to the Armenian Prelature of Cyprus and the Turkish Cypriots are Muslim. Today, in Cyprus, there are other Christian denominations, such as Anglicans and Protestants, and other faiths including Jehovah’s Witnesses, Jews, Baha’is, Buddhists and Hindus. Each has its own places of worship and freely exercises its religious rights.
People lived in peace for decades without any religious conflict. On the contrary, during the major religious festivals of Christianity (such as Easter and Christmas) and Islam (such as Bairam), Christians and Muslims exchanged visits, gifts and wishes.
The division of Cyprus is a political one and it took place in July 1974, meaning that, regrettably, this year, marks the 40th anniversary of the invasion and occupation by Turkish troops of 37% of the territory of the Republic. From that time until April 2003, when the checkpoints in the buffer zone were opened, the Greek Cypriots lived in the southern part of the island and the Turkish Cypriots in the northern part, with virtually no communication between the two communities. Of the thousands of Greek Cypriots who, in 1974, found themselves enclaved in the Karpas Peninsula, and the Maronites in three villages to the West, only a few hundred remain there today.
When the new situation arose regarding communication, we were able to see for ourselves the size of the destruction and looting that had taken place in places of Christian worship and in the cemeteries. The Christian Orthodox monuments alone are more than 570 in number, while there are others belonging to the Maronite and Armenian churches. The tragic nature of the situation was described in his report of December 12, 2012 by Mr. Heiner Bielefeldt following his mission to Cyprus in March and April 2012. All the churches, apart from 12 that have been turned into museums, have had all their decoration, furnishings and equipment removed. Many thousands of icons, wall paintings, mosaics, sacred vessels and prayer books have been stolen, many of them illegally sent abroad and sold to auction houses, galleries and private collectors. At least 80 churches have been converted into mosques, 50 stand in Turkish army camps and within military areas. Others have been turned into stables, cultural, sports and youth centers. Others have been demolished with bulldozers. The cemeteries have been vandalized and their gravestones smashed without the least sign of respect.
Today, in the villages where the enclaved Greek Cypriots live, there are just two priests to take care of the religious needs of the Christians in a very limited number of churches without requiring prior permission by the de facto authorities. During church services, the so called “police” take photos and videos or make recordings, harassing and intimidating members of the congregation. Permission given by the de facto authorities to hold religious services is limited. I need only refer to my own experience, having been refused permission on five occasions to conduct a liturgy in churches in the northern part of the island. Only at the sixth time of asking, following the personal intervention of the Mufti, Dr. Talip Atalay, was I allowed to hold a service on the Second of February 2014 in the Church of the Virgin Mary at Trachoni.
A large number of monuments that have remained unprotected and abandoned face serious structural problems and are in danger of collapse. For the past three years, the European Union has provided 6 million euros in funding through the United Nations to the bicommunal Technical Committee on Cultural Heritage to be spent on projects that deal with the most urgent cases.
Moreover, in recent months, around 15 Orthodox churches have been cleared of piles of rubbish and rubble thanks to the positive response of the Head of Evkaf, Mr. Ibrahim Bender.
The Church of Cyprus, which has many decades of experience of inter-Christian and interreligious dialogue and believes in the benefits that such dialogue can bring, responded at once to the initiative of Sweden’s Religious Social Democrats Party which was placed under the auspices of the Embassy of Sweden in Cyprus. This was in 2009 in the Home for Cooperation in the buffer zone in Nicosia. Archbishop of Cyprus Chrysostomos II began the meetings with the predecessor of the present Mufti Mr. Talip Atalay, the Mufti Mr. Yusuf Suicmez. The coordinators were Mr. Peter Weiderud and his wife Salpy. The dialogue was expanded last year with the participation of the Maronite Archbishop, Mr. Yousef Sueif, and the Armenian Archbishop, Varouzan Hergelian.The talks always take place in a very friendly and warm atmosphere. In the course of time, trust and understanding of the problems of each side has developed. I would like to mention some indicative results of the dialogue among the religious leaders that have been of benefit to the people of Cyprus. Thanks to the mediation of Dr. Talip Atalay with the de facto authorities:
- The admission fee imposed by the de facto authorities on Christians visiting the Apostolos Andreas Monastery has been abolished.
- Bishop Christoforos of Karpasia was allowed to cross through the checkpoint in October 2013 and conduct a church service in the Apostolos Andreas Monastery in November of the same year.
- I was given permission to conduct a liturgy in the Church of the Virgin Mary at Trachoni on the second of February 2014.
Thanks to the mediation of the Archbishop of Cyprus with the authorities of the Republic of Cyprus:
- The transport of Persian carpets was permitted from the northern part of the island to the Hala Sultan Tekke in Larnaca.
- The Imam responsible for the monument was provided with rest rooms and an office.
- In October 2013 the authorities of the Republic gave exceptional permission to the Mufti of Cyprus, Dr. Talip Atalay, to cross at the checkpoint and travel to the Hala Sultan Tekke in Larnaca and to another mosque in Nicosia. The Mufti was met and accompanied by Archbishop Chrysostomos II himself.
It is also worth mentioning the initiative in the dialogue of religious leaders for the young people of Cyprus which was held with relative success in the summer of 2011.
During a meeting of the religious leaders that took place in September 2013, we also had the opportunity to have with us Dr. Heiner Bielefeldt the Special Rapporteur of the United Nations, who addressed and encouraged the ongoing dialogue. We once again thank him for his excellent work which has been doing for religious freedom and belief globally and in particular for Cyprus.
Finally, in the context of the dialogue, the Ambassador of Sweden to Cyprus, Mr. Klas Gierow, held a dinner for the religious leaders and the Head of the United Nations Peacekeeping Force in Cyprus, Mrs Lisa Buttenheim. Afterwards, the religious leaders issued a joint declaration in which they welcomed the joint declaration by Mr. Anastasiades and Mr. Eroglu and underlined that the unacceptable status quo in Cyprus must be ended and that human rights and basic freedoms must be respected.
I would like to end by expressing my own conviction that the role of religion and religious leaders in resolving the Cyprus problem is of extremely great significance. For this reason, the dialogue among the religious leaders in Cyprus is not a luxury but an imperative need. This is why, as Church of Cyprus, we support it with all our might. Its good continuation and fruitful course guarantee the speeding up of the restoration of religious freedom on the island and a faster resolution of the problem. Your help and support in this, in any way at all, is most valuable and welcome.