On Saturday the 15 of October 2011, was held with a great success a conference under the theme: ‘‘The protection of cultural heritage of Cyprus: Common Efforts for the Prevention of Illicit Trafficking of Cultural Goods’’.

 The conference that took place at the Foundation of Archbishop Makarios III was co-organized by the Church of Cyprus, the Department of Antiquities and the Cyprus-American Archaeological Research Institute (CAARI). Twelve well known researchers were invited from USA, Greece, Italy, Swiss, UNESCO, and different governmental places of duty, who presented topics concerning their expertise, in a common effort of promoting and preventing of the international tragedy of the illicit trafficking of cultural goods.

 On behalf of the Church of Cyprus, His Grace Bishop Porfyrios of Neapolis participated the conference and spoke under the topic: ‘‘Efforts by the Church of Cyprus Aimed at the Prevention of the Illegal Trafficking of Religious Heritage’’. His Grace stated in detail the various activities that the Church of Cyprus is running for the protection, the record, the conservation and the promotion of our religious heritage. A specific indication was made for the efforts of tracing and repatriating Byzantine icons and other ecclesiastical artefacts which they were stolen from the churches of the northern part of Cyprus after the brutal Turkish invasion in July 1974 and the ongoing occupation since then.

 In addition, His Grace, as well as the other speakers, mentioned the need for enforcing and extending the inter-countries agreements, like the one that the Republic of Cyprus and the U.S.A. have agreed in Memorandum of Understanding and which imposes restrictions in the import of Cyprus’s archaeological and byzantine artefacts. They also mentioned the repatriation in the upcoming February 2012, of the frescos of Saint Themonianou’s Church in the occupied village of Lysi, from the Menil Foundation in Houston Texas, where they were exposed until today, after an agreement of lending them by the Church of Cyprus.     

Address of His Eminence Bishop Porfyrios of Neapolis to the seminar “Joint Efforts in Preventing and Combating the Illicit Traffic of the Cultural Heritage of Cyprus”.

Conference Hall of the Archbishop Makarios III Foundation,

15 October 2011

Subject: “Efforts by the Church of Cyprus aimed at the prevention of the illegal trafficking of Religious Heritage”

 The Church of Cyprus is especially pleased to be co-organising and taking part in today’s seminar. The prevention of the illegal trafficking of Cultural Heritage is a top priority issue for all countries with a rich Cultural Heritage, as indeed it is for our country and for the Church of Cyprus. What distinguishes our country from other European Mediterranean countries on this issue stems indisputably from the terrible consequences of the Turkish invasion.  

 The Turkish military invasion in July 1974 and the continuing occupation of the northern part of the island had – and is still having – a disastrous effect, both on the thousands of Cypriots who became refugees in their own country and on our cultural heritage which is to be found in the occupied areas.

 Victims of this well-planned attempt by the occupation regime to cut our historical roots are numerous archaeological museums, notable private collections and various archaeological sites, some of which have been looted or illegally excavated while others have been totally destroyed by the Turkish army. 

 The greatest victim of the continuing cultural destruction and looting, however, is the Religious Heritage of Cyprus. More than 570 churches and religious monuments – early Christian, Byzantine, mediaeval and more recent – have been badly desecrated, mercilessly looted and left exposed to the ravages of time and the elements. Many have been demolished. Others have collapsed. Still many others are on the verge of imminent ruin if they cannot be suitably repaired. Those that are in relatively good condition have been used or continue to be used as mosques.

 The total lack of respect on the part of the invading Turkish forces for Christian places of worship may be seen in how they are used today. All the cemeteries lie destroyed and deserted, while the churches have been turned into museums, cultural centres, sports clubs, cafés, tourist accommodation, grain stores, stables and barns, warehouses, theatres, hostels, restaurants, offices, workshops and military installations. One church is even being used as a mortuary!

  In the vast majority of these churches and monuments, all the portable and fixed objects have been stolen, destroyed or illegally exported abroad. Among them are icons (more than twenty thousand), wall paintings, mosaics, gospels, gold and silver vessels, chandeliers, iconostases, votive lamps, prayer books and sacred implements such as chalices, censers and crosses.  

 In many cases, this illegal commerce has taken place through auction houses. Thousands of objects, mainly Byzantine icons, are now in the possession of private collectors and art exhibitions in Europe, the United States and throughout the world. Only a small number of them have been identified and repatriated by the Church of Cyprus, often after time-consuming and costly legal action.

 Indicatively we shall refer to the following cases:    In 1991, following   an American court decision, four 6th century


 mosaic sections from the Church of the Virgin Mary (Panagia Kanakaria) in occupied Lythragkomi were returned to Cyprus from Indiana in the USA. Two other mosaic pieces from the same church had been repossessed in 1983 thanks to the involvement of Constantine Leventis, and another depicting Saint Thaddeus was repatriated in September 1997. This mosaic was purchased in the Netherlands by the Church of Cyprus together with fragments of wall paintings from the Church of Christ Antiphonitis, with the ultimate aim of uncovering the gang illegally trading in Cyprus’s ecclesiastical heritage which was run by Aydin Dikmen, a Turkish trafficker in antiquities.

 In October and November 1997, the German police raided a number of apartments owned by Dikmen and uncovered an extraordinary number of works of art, including hundreds of icons, sections of wall paintings, mosaics and old manuscripts which had been looted from around fifty churches in the Turkish-occupied part of Cyprus. In September 2010, after a seven-year legal battle, the court in Munich decided in Cyprus’s favour. We are currently waiting for the Court of Appeal to accept or reject Dikmen’s appeal against the verdict concerning the final award of these objects to Cyprus. This case alone clearly reveals not only the extent of the looting of the island’s Cultural Heritage but also the methodical well-organised way in which the looting was carried out.

In 2007, following negotiations with the Charles Pankow Foundation in California, six Cypriot Byzantine icons from the Holy Bishopric of Morphou were repatriated to Cyprus. They had been due to be sold by auction in the United States. Five of them were stolen in 1974 after the Turkish invasion while the sixth one had disappeared from the Church of Saint Andronikos at Kalopanayiotis as long ago as 1936.  

In November 2010, six more Byzantine icons were returned to the Church of Cyprus. A pious family in the German city of Munich, suspecting that the icons they had bought may have been from the occupied part of Cyprus, contacted the Embassy of Cyprus in Berlin. When we showed them proof that the icons had been stolen from the occupied churches they agreed to hand them back with the wish that they would soon be restored to the places of worship from which they came.  

Last January another post-Byzantine icon was returned. This was the 18th century Despotic icon of Christ which had been stolen from the Church of Saint Charalambos at Neo Chorio Kythreas after the Turkish invasion and sold to a London art dealer in 1985. The icon was later bought in good faith by the well-known pop musician Boy George. On being shown proof of its origins, he returned the icon to the Church of Cyprus.

Very recently, on 23 September, the Menil Foundation in Houston, Texas announced that it would be returning to Cyprus the murals from the dome and the apse which were taken in 1984 from the Church of Saint Euphemianos in occupied Lysi and, having been illegally exported from Cyprus to Europe, were offered for sale on the American market. The Menil Foundation, with the permission of the Cypriot government, purchased the murals and subsequently signed an agreement with the Church of Cyprus which agreed to loan them to the Foundation for 15 years. This period waslater extended to February 2012. After many years of restoration work, the murals were placed in a chapel which was a replica of that of Saint Euphemianos at Lysi. In February next year the repatriation process will begin. Once they arrive back in Cyprus they will be placed in a suitable location within the Byzantine Museum of the Makarios III Cultural Foundation until they can be safely returned to the Church of Saint Euphemianos at Lysi from which they were so violently removed.

There are, unfortunately, many instances of Byzantine icons and other ecclesiastical objects whose repatriation has come up against various obstacles, mainly of a legal nature.

In many cases there is not sufficient evidence of their origin, such as photographs or references in previous publications and properly backed-up scientific research. What remains is the gathering of the personal testimonies of people who lived in what is now the occupied area of Cyprus and expert certification based on artistic style and by comparison with other already identified objects. One such case arose recently concerning the purchase of six post-Byzantine icons that were placed on sale in a gallery in Augsburg, Germany.

In other instances, the national law of the state in which an item has been discovered, does not oblige the person in whose possession it has been found to return it to its legal owner from whom it was stolen, if the last transaction is deemed legal.

An example of such a case concerns the sanctuary doors of the Church of Saint Anstasios at Peristeronopigi, Famagusta which, having been illegally removed after the Turkish invasion, were eventually purchased by the KanazawaCollege of Art in Japan. A representative of the Church of Cyprus, who travelled to Japan to request their return, met with representatives of the Kanazawa College of Art but, despite providing evidence of their origin and their illegal removal, was unable to persuade the college authorities to repatriate the doors. The case was assigned to a Japanese lawyer who, having studied the case, informed us that there is no legal basis on which to demand the return of the sanctuary doors which, under Japanese law, were legally purchased and are thus legally owned.

Other pending cases are the following:

a) The case of two 1620 post-Byzantine icons of Christ Pantocrator with John the Baptist and of the Virgin Mary with Saint John the Divine, painted by the Cretan icon painter Meletios. The icons were confiscated by the Swiss police in early May 2009 from a Russian collector in Zurich. They are from the occupied Church of Saint James at Trikomo which the Turks are using as a tourist information centre today. The Swiss authorities have asked the Cypriot government for a final court verdict in order to proceed with their repatriation.

b) The case of four 16th century icons of the Apostles Peter, Paul, John and Mark from the Monastery of Christ Antiphonitis in occupied Kalogrea. Amendments to Dutch legislation in 2007, by which the Netherlands accepts the Hague International Convention (1954), offer a considerable likelihood that they can be successfully reclaimed. The Dutch Ministry of Culture is already studying the relevant application submitted by the Cypriot Minister of Foreign Affairs, Mrs Erato Kozakou-Markoulli.

c) Mention has already been made of the six post-Byzantine icons discovered in a German gallery in Augsburg in December 2010. They depict Saint Andrew, Saint Mark, Saint Photini, Christ’s Entry into Jerusalem and two of Saint Panteleimon, taken from various churches in the occupied area of Cyprus. The case was reported by the Cyprus Police through Interpol. Regrettably, we have no news to report on this case.

  The efforts being made by the Church of Cyprus to deal with the issue of illegal trafficking of Cultural Heritage are not restricted to claiming objects that it discovers from time to time in galleries or auction houses abroad. The endeavour to inform and enlighten public opinion is a constant, long-term one at all levels. 

In every official meeting that His Beatitude Archbishop Chrysostomos II of Cyprus has with foreign officials, diplomats, religious leaders and visitors in Cyprus and abroad, he never misses an opportunity to bring up the issue of protecting our Cultural Heritage. He has also sent letters on the same subject to the President of the European Commission, Jose Manuel Barroso, to heads of state, heads of government and international organisations.

During the past four years, the Church of Cyprus has set up and operated its Representation to the European Union in Brussels, over which I have the honour to preside. One of the Representation’s key primary objectives is, of course, “the promotion and presentation of the 37-year long illegal occupation by Turkish troops of the Christian places of worship in the northern part of the Republic of Cyprus and the removal of the cultural treasures that once adorned them.”

A series of splendid publications by the Church of Cyprus, aimed at condemning the destruction but also at preventing the illegal trafficking in our cultural heritage, has been written by eminent Byzantine scholars. Indicatively, we mention these books:  


a) “The Occupied Churches of Cyprus” (Nicosia, 2001) by Dr. and Protopresbyter Father Demosthenes Demosthenous.

b) “Religious Monuments in Turkish-occupied Cyprus” (Nicosia, 2008) by Dr. Charalambos Chotzakoglou and

c) “Christian Art in the Turkish-occupied part of Cyprus” (Nicosia, 2010) by Dr. Athanasios Papageorghiou, former Director of the Department of Antiquities.

Another long term project carried out by the Church of Cyprus with the same aims has been the systematicrecording of Byzantine works of art (wall paintings,  icons, utensils, manuscripts, early editions, etc.) and the subsequent creation of a digital archive so that in case of theft it is possible to report the case and submit a claim with firm evidence. This laborious task, ordered by the Holy Synod of the Church of Cyprus, was undertaken and successfully completed by Dr. Athanasios Papageorghiou, who visited all the dioceses, parishes and villages in the government-held area of Cyprus in order to carry out this project. He justly deserves the praise and the warm thanks expressed to him by the Church of Cyprus. We can especially understand the enormous value of this project today following a growing wave of break-ins carried out on churches with the aim of stealing ecclesiastical objects made of precious and semi-precious materials as well as icons and money.

 An extension of this project is the ongoing effort to create a digital archive of the treasures originating from the occupied areas. This archive includes not only surviving treasures from the occupied areas but photographic materialfrom old publications or from refugees who brought it with them during the Turkish invasion.

 At its recent meeting (7 September), the Holy Synod of the Church of Cyprus asked priests and church wardens to install burglar alarms in all the main churches of their parishes and villages and to take a number of other precautionary measures to safeguard precious objects and other ecclesiastical treasures. It also requested that items in isolated chapels be moved to main churches. It also urged the public to cooperate with the police to prevent and suppress the wave of break-ins and robberies.

 The creation of ecclesiastical museums or icon museums by the Holy Archbishopric and various Bishoprics in Cyprus over the past thirty years is a project that has made a timely contribution to the prevention of the illicit trade in our religious heritage. By bringing together, safeguarding, maintaining and properly promoting our religious heritage, it is preventing it from being stolen while, at the same time, cultivating respect and a sense of responsibility for its preservation in people.

 The Church of Cyprus is fighting and intensifying the battle to prevent and suppress the illegal trade in religious heritage. A great deal has been done and is still being done but more remains to be achieved in this respect. Allow us to propose the following:


a)Renewal and extension of the provisions of the Memorandum of Understanding  drawn up with the USA. The effectiveness of the Memorandum is notable because it has drastically reduced the illegal importation of objects of Cyprus’s Cultural Heritage into the United States. We consider it imperative to extend the provision concerning Byzantine icons to cover works painted up to the 19th century since a large percentage of the icons stolen from the occupied areas belong to  the post-Byzantine era.

b) Founding of an Observatory of movements and sales/purchases of Cypriot antiquities and ecclesiastical objects, with the aim of making timely identification and submitting effective claims to such objects once they have been spotted. To achieve this aim, the Church could cooperate with various government departments, the Department of Antiquities, Customs & Excise, the Police and the office of the Attorney-General. The long experience of other countries such as Italy, for example, in this area could be of great assistance to us.

c) Informing High School students through lectures and competitions as well as written material about our Cultural Heritage, its importance and ways of protecting it.

d) Updating of Cypriot legislation so as to cover issues such as auctions of art works, etc.

 We are convinced that with the collective and coordinated efforts of all – the Church, competent state bodies such as the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the Department of Antiquities, the Office of the Attorney-General and the Police – and through close collaboration with the responsible authorities in the rest of Europe and in the United States of America, we can achieve even more in the field of preventing and suppressing the illegal trafficking of the religious heritage of Cyprus, a heritage that is both European and global. 




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