- The Washington Times - Tuesday, July 21, 2009

EXCLUSIVE:

Religious artifacts on the divided island of Cyprus are in “great peril,” according to a U.S. Helsinki Commission document to be released Tuesday afternoon.

Thousands of Orthodox icons, manuscripts, frescoes and mosaics have been looted from churches, chapels and monasteries in northern Cyprus, ending up on international auction blocks, says the document, the result of a lengthy investigation by the Helsinki Commission and titled “Destruction of Cultural Property in the Northern Part of Cyprus and Violations of International Law.”

A copy of the 50-page document was provided to The Washington Times in advance of a Tuesday press briefing and panel discussion on Capitol Hill.

The panelists will include Charalampos Chotzakoglou, professor of Byzantine art and archaeology at Hellenic Open University in Patras, Greece; German art historian Klaus Gallas, who is a specialist on the international smuggling of art artifacts; and Michael Jansen, author of “War and Cultural Heritage: Cyprus after the 1974 Turkish Invasion.”

Most of the ruined property belongs to the Orthodox Church of Cyprus, one of the world’s oldest national Orthodox churches, with the rest belonging to Catholic, Armenian Orthodox, Maronite and Jewish groups.

Thirty-five years of occupation of Northern Cyprus by Turkish forces have ruined “a plethora of archeological and religious sites,” says the report, which adds that the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) has been documenting the destruction since 1984.

According to the report:

• 500 Orthodox churches or chapels have been pillaged, demolished or vandalized.

• 133 churches, chapels and monasteries have been desecrated.

• 15,000 paintings have disappeared.

• 77 churches have been turned into mosques, 28 are being used by the Turkish military as hospitals or camps, and 13 have been turned into barns.

A staff member for the Helsinki Commission said a copy of the report had been sent to the Turkish Embassy in Washington, but an embassy spokesman said it had not been received.

“It sounds like a one-sided presentation,” said the embassy spokesman, who asked to remain unidentified because he was not authorized to comment on the record.

“There’s no input from the Turkish side. There is no coincidence the report is coming out this week because it’s the 35th anniversary of the intervention by Turkey. Turkey respects all cultural heritages,” the spokesman said.

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