Mr. President, I rise today to return to the issue of the legacy of the invasion and ongoing occupation of Northern Cyprus and related human rights violations in the region. The disruption of a Christmas liturgy at the Orthodox Church of Agios Synesios, in Rizokarpaso, by the security services is appalling and should be roundly condemned by people of good will. The town, located in the Karpas region, is an anchor for the remnant of the once thriving Greek Cypriot community, now numbering several hundred mainly aged souls. The faithful had gathered at the church one of only a handful of Orthodox places of worship in the occupied area to have survived intact for a rare service. According to reports, members of the security services entered the church while the liturgy was being celebrated, ordered a halt to the religious service, and forced the worshipers and the priest out of the building before locking the doors.
This sad turn of events has become all too familiar in a region under the effective control of the Turkish military. Of the 500 Orthodox Christian churches, monasteries, chapels and other sacred sites in the north, nearly all have sustained heavy damage, with most desecrated and plundered, including cemeteries. A mere handful, including the Church of Agios Synesios, may occasionally be used for religious services depending upon the whims of the local authorities and the military. The disruption of the Christmas Day liturgy is an affront to the dignity of those attending the service and is part of a disturbing pattern of violation of OSCE commitments on the fundamental freedom of religion, including the right of religious communities to maintain freely accessible places of worship.
A related concern has been the tendency of State Department reports to downplay the difficulties faced by Orthodox Christians seeking to conduct services in northern Cyprus as well as the extent of the region’s rich religious cultural heritage. I raised my concerns over the denial of religious freedom in occupied Cyprus when the Committee on Foreign Relations held a nomination hearing for the position of Ambassador-At-Large for International Religious Freedom and will continue to closely monitor the situation in that part of Cyprus .
Under my chairmanship of the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe we undertook an examination of the destruction of religious cultural heritage in that part of Cyprus . Our findings, along with expert testimony were presented at a Commission briefing, “Cyprus’ Religious Cultural Heritage in Peril” held on July 21, 2009. I encourage my colleagues and other interested parties to review the materials from that event, available on the Commission’s Web site, www.csce.gov. A Law Library of Congress report: “Cyprus: Destruction of Cultural Property in the Northern Part of Cyprus and Violations of International Law” was also released at the briefing. In addition to documenting the extensive destruction of such sites, the briefing also touched on infringements of the rights of Orthodox Christians in Northern Cyprus to freely practice their religion.
Those responsible for the interruption and abrupt forcible ending of the Christmas service at the Church of Agios Synesios should issue a formal apology for the boorish act of repression and I call upon all authorities in northern Cyprus to remove restrictions on the free exercise of freedom of religion and other basic human rights in this part of the country under their control.