Numerous Cyprus churches being turned into mosques; others looted or destroyed

Turkey has not only violated the independence and integrity of Cyprus by ignoring resolutions of the United Nations and the European Union, but also has been steadily destroying the Christian artistic and cultural heritage of Northern Cyprus.

Left: The ruins of Agios Andronikos in Kythrea, in North Cyprus (Image courtesy of author); right: Google Earth map of Cyprus and surrounding region. (Screenshot)

When Turkish President, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, turned Istanbul’s famous Hagia Sophia Basilica back into a mosque in July 2020, many protests arose worldwide. Even Pope Francis, at his July 12, 2020 Angelus, said he was “very saddened.”

But there is a country, not far from Turkey, where many churches—not just one—have been converted into mosques: Cyprus, the largest island of the Eastern Mediterranean Sea, at the crossroads of Europe, Asia and Africa.

“In the occupied part of Cyprus, starting from 1974,” says Ioannis Eliades, “at least one church in each village has been converted into a mosque, namely the majority of the Orthodox churches.” Eliades is the Director of the Byzantine Museum of the Archbishop Makarios III Foundation, located in Nicosia, Cyprus’ capital. He explains that such a conversion does not require any substantial changes: “they wall up the south side, then they add the mikrab [the niche oriented toward Mecca, where to turn to pray] there. And once a church has become a mosque, it is no longer given back to its legitimate owners.”

That’s why Eliades launches such a harsh accusation at Turkey: “the politics of the Ottomans are the same over the centuries: convert churches into mosques without any respect.”

St. Anastasia church in Gerani (19th century), was demolished in 2008 in order to use its building material for embankments for the construction of buildings. (Photo courtesy of author)

But there are also churches in Cyprus that met a worse fate—being destroyed—similar to the churches in Mosul, which Pope Francis observed with dismay during his March 5-8, 2021, trip to Iraq. But the debris of the Cypriot churches has always been far less newsworthy.

To be fair, someone took an interest in them, explains Eliades:

The Parliament of the European Union has also allocated a sum of money for the restoration of some churches, thanks to some visits by delegations of MEPs to Cyprus, publications and conferences on this subject, both in the European Parliament and elsewhere.

Therefore, thanks to this intervention and the UN mediation, “some churches have been saved, about two or three every year since 2012. But in the last year, everything stopped, because of the pandemic and the more rigid attitude of the new president of Northern Cyprus [Ersin Tatar, nationalist and winner of the October 2020 elections].”

The churches restored up to now are “a few dozen,” Eliades estimates. “Anyway,” he adds, “even after the restoration, the faithful are not allowed to use them regularly to hold celebrations, as if the churches were no longer their property.” In the church of the Virgin Odigitria in Trachini, until a few years ago, the unique living presence within its walls were the birds that smeared the floor. It has been one of the first churches to be restored. Ioannes was baptized there, more than half a century ago. But shortly after his baptism, in 1974, Turkey invaded the northern part of Cyprus, where only a few hundred Greek-Cypriots live now. “But until 1976, two years after the invasion, there were still 5,000,” Ioannis notes.

Cyprus today is a country, if you will, mutilated in the ‘body’, its territory, and in ‘the soul,’ the Orthodox Christian religious roots of the majority of its population. And here it could be helpful to recall that thanks to its long history, dating back to the Bronze Age, Cyprus boasts an enormous cultural heritage, marked by the many civilizations which flourished here along the centuries: Assyrians, Byzantine, Egyptians, Greek, Hebrew, Minoan, Otomani, Persian, Phoenician and Roman. The predominantly Greek and Orthodox national identity took shape in the Middle Ages, in spite of being subjected to the rule of several foreign states, until British domination in 1878, and eventual independence in 1960.

The Turkish invasion launched in 1974, at the height of a long period of political tensions between Greek-Cypriots and Turkish-Cypriots, resulted in an unprecedented situation in Cyprus, which had never been before divided into two parts. Finally, in 1983, the occupied part of the island became the so-called “Turkish republic of Northern Cyprus,” even if recognized as a sovereign nation only by Ankara.

Turkey has not only violated the independence and integrity of Cyprus by ignoring resolutions of the United Nations and the European Union, but also has started the destruction of the Christian artistic and cultural heritage of Northern Cyprus, through forcing the expulsion of the Greek-speaking Orthodox population and settling Turkish Muslim settlers. The goal, so to speak, is to “turkify” places, towns and villages, changing their names and erasing the traces of the Greek and Christian history, even though Turkish Cypriots had never been majority before 1974, not even in the north. Therefore, it’s easy to recognize that the current political situation prevents any attempt to find a solution for the disappearance of an immense cultural heritage.

Conversion, destruction, debris

In fact, more than 500 churches and monasteries have been looted, destroyed, vandalized or converted for other uses: more than 15,000 icons of saints, innumerable sacred liturgical vessels, gospels and other objects of great value have literally vanished, according to the detailed update titled “Cypriot Byzantine Heritage in danger: destruction and illicit trafficking of artworks”, published by Ioannis Eliades in the “Bulletin the Spanish society of Byzantinistica” in December 2020.

It is sad to read that the destruction of churches has also been recent, such as St. Catherine in Gerani, demolished in 2008 to use its debris as embankments for new buildings in Famagusta. The same fate occurred in 2011 to St. Thekla in Vokolida, because it was “an obstacle” to the sea view from a newly built Turkish hotel. In many other cases, the collapse of churches depends only on having been neglected for more than four decades, after the plunder of doors, windows, roofs, floors and so on. Even the Monastery of Virgin Mary Avgasida in Milia, Famagusta was demolished, and the cells of the monastery are used as animal stalls.

The Monastery of Virgin Mary Avgasida in Milia decorated with frescoes of the early 16th century. The church was demolished. (Photos courtesy of the author)

Again, many churches have been turned into warehouses for various materials: tires (St. George in Askeia and St. Artemon in Afanteia), potatoes from neighboring farms (St. Antony in Leonarison), building materials (St. Eirine in Kyrenia). Among the different uses of the converted churches include museums and theaters, and even a mortuary (Transfiguration of the Savior church in Chryseliou) and a Turkish propaganda museum (St. Romanos Maronite church in Vouni).

In addition, many churches, after being looted, were rented or sold to private individuals and turned into Voong commercial enterprises such as hotels (the Monastery of St. Anastasia in Lapethos), Ottoman baths (the medieval church of Saint George of the Latins), residences (the Virgin Mary church in Engomi), an old furniture repair (St. Luke in Lefkosia), a painting workshop (the Byzantine church of Virgin Chrysotrimithiotissa in Trimithi). There is even a nightclub (St. John’s Knight in Famagusta), a parking lot (St. Andronikos in Kazafani), a dog shelter (the St. Anthony’s catholic church in Kontea) and so on.

As mentioned above, a large chapter is that of the churches turned into mosques, up to the present day, for the many of settlers transported from Anatolia in eastern Turkey to the Greek villages and towns of Northern Cyprus.

“Today, among the Northern Cyprus population, the settlers transplanted from Turkey are more than twice as many as the people originally from Cyprus,” Ioannis Eliades explains. And generally, he adds, “the settlers are more fanatical, more sensitive to nationalist propaganda. Turkish Cypriots from Cyprus are happy to see Greek Cypriots returning to a church from time to time to celebrate Mass. The settlers instead look at the surviving churches like at a sign of the presence of an enemy.”

Looking forward to a hypothetical reunification of Cyprus, “the current situation is very critical,” from Eliades’ point of view; “Turkey only wants a two-state solution in Cyprus, or at most a two-state federation, in order to control also the Southern Cyprus. Reunification is a difficult prospect as long as Erdogan is in charge. There is always hope, we must fight, but I see a lot of pessimism everywhere.”

On top of that, after the Turkish invasion Northern Cyprus became one of the most militarized areas of the world, hosting about 45,000 Turkish soldiers. To house them, even churches (Prophet Elias in Marathovounos, St. George in Kythrea, St. Barbara in Kyrenia), monasteries (Acheiropoietos in Lampousa, St. Panteleimon in Myrtou, St. Euphemianos in Lysi, St. Spyridon in Tremetousia, St. John Chrysostom in Koutsoventis) or even whole Greek and Maronite villages (Pyroi, Voni, Askeia, Marko, Tympou, Asomatos, Agia Marina Skylloura, Kontemenos, Loutros) were turned into and used as barracks, besides the hotels and properties of Greek refugees.

The devastation of the historical memory of Cyprus has not spared even the dead, because many cemeteries have been destroyed or damaged through their abandonment. In 2017, in the Greek Orthodox cemetery in Keryneia, a photoshoot of half-naked models was organized by a Turkish fashion house.

Illicit trafficking of antiquities

Finally, the last chapter of the history is the illicit trafficking of antiquities fostered by the Turkish invasion. According to Ioannis Eliades, “the biggest part of the Christian artistic heritage was stolen from North Cyprus to foreign countries in the first decade after the war: a priceless treasure of frescoes, mosaics, icons, iconostasis, furniture, books, minor art pieces and so on, belonging today to private collections in Turkey, Russia, Switzerland, Holland, UK, and even as far as the US, Australia, Japan.”

The list included even the oldest existing Early Christian wall mosaic in Cyprus, dating to the 6th century, from the apse of the Virgin Mary Kanakaria church in Lythrangomi, fragmented into pieces and removed. A famous case, discovered in Nicosia in 1979, was that of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees in Cyprus, Prince Alfred zur Lippe, who was able to export illegally many antiquities and icons, before the scandal was revealed. Another infamous name is that of Aydin Dikmen, a Turkish smuggler. When Interpol and German Police raided in September and October 1997 his apartments in Munich, Germany, they confiscated more than 300 works of art (icons, mosaics, manuscripts and frescoes) from occupied Cyprus. After being identified as originating from 50 different occupied churches, they were repatriated from Germany in 2013 and 2015.

The apsis mosaic of Virgin Mary Kanakaria in Lythrangomi before and after the looting done between 1976 and 1979. (Photo courtesy of the author)

The Byzantine Museum of the Archbishop Makarios III Foundation (AMF), inaugurated in 1982 and now directed by Ioannis Eliades, is the headquarters of the work by the Cypriot Orthodox Church to preserve and promote the Christian-Orthodox heritage of the island. A substantial part of this commitment is focused on Northern Cyprus.

“We document the disappearance of works of art,” says Eliades, “we restore those recovered, we organize conferences to make them known. We also visit the abandoned churches, to assess their state of conservation, even if now it is not easy to travel north, because due to the pandemic, there are crazy restrictions on travel. Otherwise, in other periods, it is usually possible to visit the abandoned monuments without checks, even if there have also been cases of checks or impediments by the police of Northern Cyprus.” But the saddest thing, adds Eliades, is to observe the wickedness of those who, for no reason, take away the windows of the churches, so as to allow them to be dirtied by the birds.

Finally, t is necessary to say that in Northern Cyprus there are churches that the authorities decided to keep in good condition, together with all the artwork they contain. Probably, explains Eliades, “they are interested in exploiting them as tourist attractions, being the oldest and most important churches. Perhaps it was the tourists who suggested that they were well preserved. The list includes the St. Mamas church and monastery in Morfou, the Bellapais Abbey, the church of the Most Holy Mother of God in Trikomo and some others.”

Nevertheless, it is a pity that many other equally beautiful and important churches in Northern Cyprus have met a much worse fate, while in the free Cyprus, all the mosques are in good condition. And although all the Turkish-Cypriot population, with the 1974 war, moved from south to north, now some of these mosques are used by Islamic immigrants from Syria or Pakistan.

Despite everything he has seen and knows, Eliades holds no feelings of anger or desire for revenge. “Mosques are also a cultural heritage of my country, so we have to preserve them,” he says without hesitation.


If you value the news and views Catholic World Report provides, please consider donating to support our efforts. Your contribution will help us continue to make CWR available to all readers worldwide for free, without a subscription. Thank you for your generosity!

Click here for more information on donating to CWR. Click here to sign up for our newsletter.


About Paolo Fucili 4 Articles
Paolo Fucili is a journalist writing from Italy.

19 Comments

  1. This is very sad. Thank you for bringing this issue to the knowledge of the world. Why isn’t the world community, UN, European Union doing something to stop it?

  2. If this were being done to Muslims, world powers would be launching missals against the perpetrators. But these are Christians, so there is no problem. We have the God-given right to defend ourselves. But, for now, there should be an Excorsimo Magno on Islam. Islam is a diabolical religion. How people can adhere to it is a mystery. An Exorcism would frustrate the plans of the evil one.

  3. Mr. Fucili neglects to mention the role the terrorist Nikos Sampson played in overthrowing Archbishop Makarios, president of independent Cyprus, which led to the partition of Cyprus. in order to achieve his goal of enosis (unity) of independent Cyprus with Greece, Sampson murdered Turkish Cypriots (who called him “the butcher”), Greeks who opposed him, and British officers and police. He was supported by the Greek military junta that ruled Greece at the time. When Sampson finally seized power in Cyprus, the Turkish army took control of northern Cyprus as a refuge for Turkish Cypriots from persecution by Greek Cypriots led by Sampson. Turkish Cypriots had discussed partition of the island for years to guarantee their safety. The British rescued Archbishop Makarios before Sampson and his followers could kill him too.

  4. Erdogan reveals himself as the putative successor of Mehmed II who conquered Constantinople and ruthlessly slaughtered and enslaved Christians. With the death of Kemal Ataturk the founder of secular Islamic Turkey the nation has drifted toward fanatical Islamic extremism. The revolt of the military and its failure to succeed emboldened the murderer Recep Erdogan to restore the former grandeur of the previous Ottoman Empire. Erdogan perceives himself as the leader of Sunni Islam evident in his support of Sunni insurgents in Syria. What’s occurring now is a reason why both John Paul II and Benedict XVI were opposed to Turkey entering the European Union. With the disastrous open border policy and never ending influx of Muslim migrants Turkey as a member would have further advanced Islam within Europe. As a member of NATO Turkey is an assumed necessary evil. Evict them and they’ll likely ally with our enemies. Unless Turkey returns to its former secular status that may be the better option. They’re now a menace to Christianity.

    • Far from slaughtering Christians and Jews after taking Constantinople, Mehmet II (“Conqueror Mehmet”) asked both the Chief Rabbi and the Greek Orthodox patriarch to remain in the city permanently. He supplied them with money, land, buildings and horses – whatever they needed in order to remain in the city with their people so that his new capital, Constantinople (now Istanbul), would be “a shining city on a hill.” Both these Jewish and Christian leaders remained in the city. The Greek Orthodox Ecumenical patriarch is still there to this day and has never left the city. In mainstream Islam both Christians and Jews are “People of the Book,” not “infidels” (pagans), and are entitled to respect.

      • Oh, please! Some of us have actually read the Quran, which describes Christians as “polytheists” and Jews in words I will not repeat. Only at very rare intervals have Muslim majorities ever tolerated Christians and Jews. Subjugation has everywhere been the general rule. Islam is the most intolerant religion in history.

        • The Ottoman sultan gave asylum to the Spanish Jews who were driven out of Spain by the Christian monarchs Ferdinand and Isabella in 1492. The descendants of these Jews still live in Turkey and still speak a dialect of Spanish. Turkey was the only country in the world which allowed unlimited immigration to Jews fleeing the Nazis. Many of these Jews later continued on to Israel but many remained in Turkey. Some were still teaching at Turkish universities till the 1950s and 1960s. Turkey recognized the state of Israel before the U.S. did, and maintained close relations until the current president. The Ottoman government was a system of millets (nations) so each nation or religion governed itself as long as it paid its taxes to the sultan and obeyed Ottoman laws. There was so much fighting among Christians over churches in the Holy Land that the Ottoman sultan decreed that a Moslem family would retain the key to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem and would open and close the church daily to prevent Christians fighting over it. When Pope Benedict XVI visited that church, the descendants of that Moslem family which still possessed the key walked in procession to the church along with the pope.

      • And Lynn, if my previous response were insufficient as to the pillage and rape, it continues after Mehmed II’s lifting of the sack. “Many women and girls would have been sold as sex slaves, and slavery would continue to be allowed until the early 20th century. According to Nicolas de Nicolay, slaves were displayed naked at the city’s slave market, and young girls could be purchased. George Sphrantzes says that people of both genders were raped inside Hagia Sophia. According to Steven Runciman most of the elderly and the infirm/wounded and sick who were refugees inside the churches were killed, and the remainder were chained up and sold into slavery” (Smith, Cyril J. 1974. History of Rape and Rape Laws. Women Law Journal. No. 60. p. 188. Archived from the original on 26 April 2020. Runciman, Steven 1965. The Fall of Constantinople 1453. Cambridge. University Press. p. 147). 978-0-521-39832-9. Archived from the original on 3 September 2020. Retrieved 23 September 2020).

  5. Mehmed consented to a three-day sack of the city, but, before the evening of the first day after its capture, he countermanded his order. Entering the city at the head of a procession, he went straight to Hagia Sophia and converted it into a mosque. Afterward he established charitable foundations and provided 14,000 gold ducats per annum for the upkeep and service of the mosque. For Genoa’s part, the city-state sent 700 soldiers to Constantinople, all of whom arrived in January 1453 with Giovanni Giustiniani Longo at their head. Emperor Constantine XI named Giustiniani commander of his land defenses and spent the rest of the winter strengthening the city for a siege (Encyclopedia Britannica). Genoese captain Longo was captured [later escaped] sold into slavery with many others. The three day sack of the city cost many lives. It’s true after the sack Mehmed wished to restore Constantinople as a cosmopolitan trading center and invited Genoese traders to return.

    • I’ve also read that Fatih Mehmet allowed only a one day sack of Constantinople although at the time it was customary to allow soldiers to sack a city for three days. According to Sidney Nettleton Fisher (“The Middle East: A History,” 2nd ed., Alfred Knopf, NY, 1969, pp.197-8), “From the very outset Mehmet was concerned with repopulating the city, “which was still devastated after the Fourth Crusade. The sultan freed many prisoners allocated to him, encouraging others to remain and exempting many from taxation for various lengths of time. The Christian population was never subjected to the devshirmeh (military draft).” The sultan also “feted him [the Greek patriarch], recognized him as patriarch and leader of the Christians in Istanbul, and ordered the vizir and officers to accord him proper respect…. Thus in many ways the Greek Christians were encouraged to reside in Istanbul and allowed to live according to their own ways and laws as long as they did not infringe upon or come into conflict with the administration of the government and the lives of Muslim subjects.” Roger Crowley writes in “1453: the Holy War for Constantinople and the Clash of Islam and the West,” (Hyperion, NY, 2005, p.232-4), that Mehmet II pardoned the Christians he found still hiding in Hagia Sophia, and “ordered that they be allowed to go home under protection.” He continues, “If the day had unfolded in pitiable scenes and terrible instances of massacre, there was nothing particular to Islam in this behavior. It was the expected reaction of any medieval army that had taken a city by storm.” He then references the Byzantine sack of Candia on Crete in 961, the Crusader sack of Constantinople in 1204, and the Byzantine butchering of the Latins in Constantinople in 1183.

      • Lynn I’m edified that Mehmed II showed deference to Jews, and knowledge of Turkey’s compassion toward Jews during the Nazi era. No small thing. Although your portrayal of Mehmed may have us call him Saint Mehmed II rather than Mehmed II the Horrible. That aside you have a good grasp of history, including that no one nation had a monopoly on pillage and slaughter.

        • Thanks for the kind words. I wouldn’t canonize any sultan. I was very interested to see how complex the situation was in 1453. Christians (Byzantines) and Moslems (Mehmed II’s uncle who claimed the Ottoman throne and his Moslem army) fought Moslems (Mehmet II and his army) and Christians (Christian soldiers from lands the Ottoman had captured). And the Hungarian cannon expert who applied to the Byzantine emperor for a job. The emperor didn’t have the money to hire him so he offered his services to Mehmet II. It was his cannons that brought down the walls around Constantinople.

      • Lynn I’m afraid I have to disagree with you re the taking of Constantinople. I recently read from our local library a very large history of the city, published in 2020..’Byzantium’ was in the title. It described the terrible scenes in Hagia Sophia, perpetrated on those who had sought safety there. Some accounts were by those few who were not killed or sold into slavery and who managed to escape.
        The reason that Mehmed 11 stopped the pillaging after only one day was because even he was appalled at the needless destruction being wrought on the city.
        HE installed Gennadious Scholarios as Greek patriarch the FOLLOWING year. And yes, the Ecumenical Patriarch is still in the city today, but his title is NOT recognized by the Turkish government. Gordon Carter. Adelaide. South Australia.

  6. Interesting how the map of Cyprus looks like there is a finger pointing towards Turkey ..
    the connections to Sts Paul and Barnabas .. mention as to how the Latin Church related places there were handed over to become Orthodox , thus unlikely that there are places that have Eucharistic Adoration .. and not too far away is Mt.Athos that to this day would allow Moslems but not Catholics ..The priests serving in the military in the ships and planes in the areas around , even those on cruise ships and such too having the intention , in Eucharistic Adoration , to help undo the knots of the generational bondages in the area – rich in history .. for breaking down the fortresses ..in oneness with the prayers of the Holy Father that the vast sums being spent on arms build up be redirected for humanitarian needs .

    O Mary , Undoer of Knots , pray for all !

  7. And yet many member countries of the EU allow Turkish immigration into their countries with minimal restrictions. Talk about national suicide.

3 Trackbacks / Pingbacks

  1. Dans la partie occupée de Chypre, plus de 500 églises et monastères ont été pillés, détruits, vandalisés... - Le Salon Beige
  2. Dans la partie occupée de Chypre, plus de 500 églises et monastères ont été pillés, détruits, vandalisés…
  3. Cientos de templos fueron arrasados o convertidos en mezquitas en Chipre

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

All comments posted at Catholic World Report are moderated. While vigorous debate is welcome and encouraged, please note that in the interest of maintaining a civilized and helpful level of discussion, comments containing obscene language or personal attacks—or those that are deemed by the editors to be needlessly combative or inflammatory—will not be published. Thank you.


*