Mr. Speaker, I rise today to address ongoing human rights violations in occupied northern Cyprus . Today is the 37th anniversary of the illegal 1974 invasion–a terrible tragedy, and an ongoing one, as the continued occupation of that country by tens of thousands of Turkish troops continues to deprive of their homes all those forced to flee the north–estimated to number approximately 200,000. Many Greek Cypriots escaped the north with little more than the clothes on their backs. While some have returned to visit their own homes or ancestral villages, none have been allowed to take back their rightful property–those despoiled include an estimated 5,000 Americans of Cypriot descent. Several hundred courageous Greek Cypriots, mainly elderly people, refused to be uprooted and today live in enclaves, the remnant of once-thriving Greek Cypriot communities which have effectively been ethnically cleansed.
Hundreds of churches, chapels and monasteries once dotted the rugged landscape of the region, part of Cyprus’s rich religious cultural heritage. Indeed, St. Paul visited the island nation on one of his early missionary journeys, and St. Barnabas, a native of the Cypriot city of Salamis, was martyred nearby for his defense of Christianity. The Helsinki Commission, of which I am the Chairman in this Congress, has documented the desecration and destruction of some of the over 500 religious sites in the occupied area looted of their priceless icons, mosaics and frescoes once revered by the faithful. Many of these sacred objects, stolen from churches inside or adjoining Turkish military bases, have landed on the international art market. Even the dead are not allowed to rest in peace with destruction of cemeteries rampant throughout the region. Cypriot authorities interdicted a container originating in the occupied area filled with metal destined for a recycling facility in Asia. Upon inspection agents found that the unit consisted of metal crosses and stolen grave markers.
Mr. Speaker, I remain deeply concerned over ongoing violations of freedom of religion and other rights in northern Cyprus. Let there be no mistake, the Turkish government is responsible for what happens in the occupied part of the island. Last Christmas, a small group of Orthodox believers gathered in the village of Rizokarpaso to celebrate the divine liturgy–only to have their worship disrupted by Turkish security forces, who ordered them to disperse. The Helsinki Commission continues to receive reports of the demolition of churches in the region even as others are converted to commercial use as warehouses, barns, or casinos.
Mr. Speaker, the nearly four-decade-long illegal occupation of northern Cyprus by Turkey is an affront to the principles enshrined in the Helsinki Final Act and an encroachment on the fundamental freedoms and human rights of Greek Cypriots living in the region’s enclaves and those forced to flee the area following the 1974 invasion. Our government must continue to engage on behalf of the human rights of Greek Cypriots.