Following the military invasion of Cyprus in 1974 and the continuing occupation of the northern part of Cyprus by Turkey, it has been documented that extensive destruction, desecration, and pillage of religious sites and other historic monuments, as well some disputed archaeological excavations and illegal exportation of objects, have occurred in the northern part of Cyprus. The Government of Cyprus claims that the impetus behind the acts of destruction and desecration of religious sites is the obliteration of their cultural and religious symbols, which form part of the cultural and spiritual heritage of Cyprus; as such they are extremely significant not only for the Greek-Cypriots, but also for the entire population of Cyprus and for humankind in general. On the other hand, the unilaterally declared and unrecognized (with the exception of Turkey) “state” of the “Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus” (“TRNC”) argues that its competent authorities are engaged in actions designed to preserve and protect religious sites, regardless of their origin and, moreover, that the excavations are taking place within the “TRNC’s” own “sovereign” area.
It is against this background that this report analyses the international legal framework governing the protection of cultural property in the northern part of Cyprus. The report also examines the rights and obligations of Turkey and Cyprus arising out of international agreements and especially the legal consequences of the destruction and pillage of Cyprus’ religious and cultural property by “TRNC.”
The analysis focuses on the international legal norms and standards applicable to:
a) The protection of cultural property during armed conflict;
b) Occupied territory;
c) The protection of cultural property against the illicit trade and export of artifacts; and,
d) Religious intolerance.
In order to draw out the issues, the report provides a historical background, continuing to the time of the de facto partition of the island and the ensuing military occupation. Also included is a brief description of the reported destruction of cultural property that occurred in the northern part of Cyprus and an overview of Cyprus’ domestic ownership laws on cultural property. In analyzing the international legal standards applicable to the protection of cultural property, this report examines three key legal issues:
a) Whether religious sites in Cyprus (including churches, chapels, monasteries, synagogues, and mosques used by the Greek Cypriot community and other minorities for religious purposes) qualify as “cultural property” as defined in the relevant law and thus warrant international protection;
b) Whether the northern part of Cyprus meets the legal definition of an occupied territory; and
c) Whether the destruction of religious sites in the northern part of Cyprus could give rise to international responsibility on the part of the occupying Turkish military forces in Cyprus; the sub-issue of whether “TRNC” bears any degree of responsibility is briefly touched upon as well. The report concludes with a short overview of courses of action available to the Republic of Cyprus to pursue its legal claims against the destruction, illicit trade, and transfer of its cultural property.