The illusion of occupied Cyprus
Source: DR. ELIZABETH H. PRODROMOU
Outgoing Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s final weeks at the helm of the State Department were a tour de force of her unrivalled capacity to confront inconvenient truths when it comes to protecting US strategic objectives. As John Kerry now begins his new post as America’s diplomat-in-chief, he will need to address some stubborn facts about US relations with Turkey, a country whose value as a partner for US geostrategic interests in Eurasia will remain compromised until Ankara commits to international human rights standards and halts its decades-long policy of cleansing Christianity in Turkish-occupied Cyprus.
Turkey’s steady eradication of Christianity in the north of Cyprus is an ugly reality embedded in the larger, inconvenient truth of Ankara’s occupation since 1974 of 37 per cent of the territory of the Republic of Cyprus. An EU member-state, Cyprus is a critical asset for Transatlantic intelligence and security activities at the nexus of three continents, and the only stable, democratic friend to Israel in an otherwise hostile regional security environment.
The story of Turkey in Cyprus has been deftly excised from the grand narrative of Turkey that has long been peddled in US foreign policy circles. Islamist Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has stayed on message over the last decade in building Turkey’s brand as a secular “model for Muslim democracy,” thereby adroitly augmenting the perpetual political trope of preceding Kemalist governments that Turkey was a “secular democracy” with a special friendship with America and Israel. Yet, there’s a ridiculous quality to these story seeds in the face of the evidence and ramifications of Turkey’s occupation record of religious cleansing in Cyprus.
Turkey’s estimated 43,000 troops, together with Ankara’s Turkish-Cypriot client administration in northern Cyprus, have taken only 38 years to erase two millennia of a vibrant Christian presence in the occupation zone in Cyprus. Turkey’s two-pronged assault-designed to rid northern Cyprus of living Christians and to destroy the historical patrimony of Christian religious and cultural sites-has been widely documented by the United Nations, the European Court of Human Rights, and the European Commission’s Annual Progress Reports on Turkey’s Accession Negotiations. Some basic data are instructive. Of the 20,000 Christians (Greek Orthodox, Armenian Apostolic, Roman Catholic, and Maronite) in the northern part of Cyprus when Turkey ended its invasion of the island, today, only 330 Greek Orthodox and 109 Maronites remain. There is no freedom of worship for Christians in northern Cyprus, as Christian religious leaders must undergo a convoluted permission process to cross the UN-patrolled Green Line to conduct religious services; requests for religious services for Cypriot citizens wishing to cross to the north to use their churches and monasteries and to preserve their cemeteries, are regularly denied by the Turkish-Cypriot administration. The UN Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) has detailed the 500-plus Christian religious sites (churches, chapels, and monasteries) that have been vandalized, desecrated and destroyed in northern Cyprus, the bulk of which are Greek Orthodox sites of the Church of Cyprus, but the same fate has befallen the Armenian, Maronite, and Roman Catholic sites. The Turkish military uses churches as storehouses for materiel, and stands watch as the Turkish-Cypriot administration converts Christian places of worship to casinos and stables, bulldozes ancient chapels for hotel and mosque construction, and fails to prevent disinterments in Christian cemeteries by vandals.
US government agencies have begun to take notice of Turkey’s religious crimes in occupied Cyprus. The 2012 designation by the US Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) of Turkey as a Country of Particular Concern (CPC) for its systematic and egregious violations of religious freedom included Turkey’s actions in occupied Cyprus, and the US Helsinki Committee (CSCE) recently identified Turkey, as an occupying power, as responsible for the crimes against Christian religio-cultural patrimony in the north of Cyprus.
But it’s been a series of events beyond Turkey’s religious cleansing in occupied Cyprus that has provoked US foreign policy makers to reconsider the parameters of US-Turkey relations. Erdogan’s trend towards authoritarianism, centred on the use of judicial fiat and the state security apparatus to silence all domestic opposition to the AKP, has been a wake-up call about his manipulation of constitutional reform to serve his ambition to become the first head of state in a new presidential system in Turkey. Meanwhile, Erdogan’s strident anti-Israel rhetoric, a move that has opened the floodgates of societal and media anti-Semitism within Turkey, has provided cover for regional anti-Semitic tropes that are corrosive for the already-endangered liberalizing impulses of the Arab Spring.
Here again, US foreign policy makers would have been smart to realize that Turkish saber-rattling when Nicosia announced plans to move ahead with developing vast natural gas and hydrocarbon reserves in the country’s Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) could easily devolve into Turkish threats against Israel. Given Turkey’s abject disregard for international human rights standards in occupied Cyprus and for the Republic of Cyprus’ sovereignty over its energy reserves, there was predictability in Ankara’s bellicose response to Israel and the Republic of Cyprus when they announced plans for collaborative exploration of energy reserves in their contiguous EEZ’s.
The United States is a major stakeholder in the massive geostrategic interests at play in the Near East. John Kerry’s vision and mettle as Secretary of State could shine quickly by applying John Adam’s observation that “facts are stubborn things” to persuade Turkey to stop cloaking its denial and actions of cleansing of Christianity in the occupied part of Cyprus under the mantle of the supposedly intractable Cyprus Problem. Committing US diplomatic assets to assist endangered Christians in Turkish-occupied Cyprus is smart foreign policy.
* Dr. Elizabeth H. Prodromou is the Director of International Affairs for the Hellenic American Leadership Council and Affiliate Scholar at Harvard University’s Center for European Studies.