I am grateful to the organisers for giving me the opportunity to present my personal journey and how this can help Armenia as well as the Armenian diaspora. Special thanks to the embassy of The Netherlands for being here to support me with their presence. I am hoping that by the end of my speech we will be able to identify common ground for united action because that is what is exactly what is needed.
This is me as a young person who went to bed in 1974 full of dreams. I woke up in the middle of the armed Turkish invasion of my country, the Republic of Cyprus. Since then, my life has been scarred by the experience of war and my subsequent new identity, a refugee, which was imposed on me by the use of brute force. I became an internally displaced person who had been forcibly uprooted from my home and transferred away from my town and prevented from returning to my home, my school, my church and my neighbourhood which was ethnically cleansed.
The Republic of Cyprus has been a member of the UN since 1960, the Council of Europe since 1961 and the EU since 2004. Even so, since 1974, Turkey continues to occupy 36 per cent of the territory and as much as 57 per cent of the coastline of the Republic. Furthermore, Turkey has illegally transferred colonists from Turkey to live in our homes. Turkey has thereby arbitrarily changed the demographic character of the occupied area.
The issue is too complex to address in a fifteen-minutes presentation. However, what I should stress is that all but a few Christians from the Turkish-occupied north – Armenians, Maronites, Greeks and others – were forced to leave our homes. In the opposite direction went the Turkish citizens of the Republic of Cyprus who lived in the south but were forced into moving north. All of which reflected a pre-existing Turkish strategy which intended to enforce segregation via an ethnically cleansed but Turkish-populated northern zone. Yet, that segregation was – and remains – in flagrant breach of The Hague Conventions, the Geneva Conventions, the European Convention on Human Rights and so many other instruments of international law.
The town I was born, Famagusta, illustrates what has gone wrong. In the 1960s, it was the vacation destination for the rich and famous like Brigite Bardot, Elizabeth Taylor and others. However, since 1974, much of my town of Famagusta has been forcibly fenced off by the Turkish occupation authorities. It has been kept, for 47 years, as a de facto ghost town, being used as a negotiation tool to pressurize for a ‘two-state solution’ of one sort or another whereby Muslims would be segregated from Christians and other non-Muslims. All ‘solutions’ offered to Cyprus to-date have been in line with Turkish strategy and, thus, based on discrimination by ethnic background and religion. No ‘solution’ has been offered which is based on the rule of law, freedom, fundamental human rights, non-discrimination and the basic principles of ONE PERSON ONE VOTE and one Cyprus for all citizens irrespective of religious or ethnic backgrounds.
Since 1974, what has happened to the Armenian, Maronite and Greek Orthodox Christian Churches in the Turkish-occupied north? They have been looted, vandalized, converted to public toilets or otherwise mistreated. At least twenty have been arbitrarily converted into mosques and remain so today. Icons, frescoes and mosaics that represent passages of the Bible and were once decorating every inch of our Churches have been looted and sold abroad to greedy and naïve collectors. They have acted in witting or unwitting ignorance of the pain it causes to see one’s religious symbols being traded as commodities well away of their original place of worship.
The destruction of culture in the Republic of Cyprus mirrors the destruction of culture in other places where Turkey has wreaked havoc.
‘More than 500 churches and monasteries have been looted or destroyed: more than 15,000 icons of saints, innumerable sacred liturgical vessels, gospels and other objects of great value have literally vanished. A few churches have met a different fate and have been turned into mosques, museums, places of entertainment or even hotels. Many Byzantine churches have suffered irreparable damage, and many cemeteries have been desecrated or destroyed.’
If that is not injustice, what is?
As for me, from Cyprus I ended up in the UK for my studies and I then travelled to The Netherlands where I live with my husband and three children. The Netherlands has been good to me. It gave me opportunities to work and develop. I have never once felt discriminated there. After arriving in The Netherlands, I began telling my story and soon I became the voice of Cyprus in Holland. Indeed, at the age of 27 years old, I became the honorary consul of Cyprus in a period where there was no Cypriot embassy there.
Looters, art dealers and controversial traders approached me to sell looted icons and mosaics to my government via me and the game began. For years to come, I worked hand and hand with Interpol, Europol, Scotland Yard, the FBI, the Cyprus Police, the German Police and other bodies with the aims of combating art trafficking and bring back home some of the looted antiquities and artefacts that had been looted from the occupied north. As a result, I know just too well the role that the return of such items can play in healing our pain.
My experiences helped me to address my inner conflicts, to become more philosophical and to try to understand the criminal acts that caused the de facto de-Christianisation of the north of Cyprus. I realized that it was necessary to understand this de-Christianisation in its broader context and to identify with other people, such as the Armenians and Assyrians, who suffered in similar ways.
This year, on 20th July 2021, on the 47th anniversary of the invasion, President Erdogan of Turkey paid an illegal visit to the Turkish-occupied north of Cyprus. Having arrived via an illegal ‘airport’, he announced his so-called ‘plans’ for Famagusta, my town. He arbitrarily decided that Turkey will open a part of it after 47 years. He also prayed in a newly erected mosque. At the time, I travelled from The Netherlands to Cyprus with a journalist from the distinguished magazine Spiegel and a photographer. I tried several times to walk to my weather-beaten and ethnically cleansed home in Famagusta but the Turkish occupation army stopped me. I tried to go to my Church in the Stavros (i.e. the Holy Cross) area of Famagusta but the Turkish army stopped me once again.
On the 20th July, Mr Erdogan opened a mosque remotely from Nicosia. Whilst he was praying in the mosque and spewing propaganda, I took out of my bag an icon given to me from my Godfather and in the street, thirty meters away from the Turkish army and the mosque. I kneeled down and prayed in front of my looted, vandalized and arbitrarily shut Church of Saint Nicolaos which lies neglected behind a fence. I could not enter either my home or any church as I needed so-called ‘permission’ from Turkey to do so and did not have it and I shall never ask for one.
The emotions overwhelmed me so much that I wrote a note to Mr Erdogan in the front of my book, The Icon Hunter. My note reads as follows….
‘Let the ruins of the past be the building stones of the future…. Allow us Famagustians to re-build our city… our Churches…our cemeteries as a way to heal our pain.
‘I shall pray for you Mr. Erdogan to make the right decision and stop hurting my people…. If not, there will be no mosque big enough to hold our tears or your sins…
‘Give me one hour of your time anywhere on earth to speak to you face to face about true Peace and Reconciliation’
I signed my note ‘… A ghost from Famagusta…’. I then gave it to a de facto senior policeman and left. However, with these experiences behind me, I am determined to mobilise citizens to take legal action against Turkey for affronting our dignity, restricting our religious freedoms and otherwise acting illegally. I want to be free to pray in any Christian Church I want in Cyprus without so-called ‘permission’ from either Turkey in its capacity as the occupying power or its illegal subordinate administration. In due course, I also want to be buried in any Christian cemetery I choose without requiring so-called ‘permission’ from the de facto occupation authorities. And I want to be free of the fear that my bones will be dug out as the bones of my grandparents have been dug out. I say that mindful of the desecration of countless cemeteries in the occupied area, a place where inhumanity, impunity and injustice have de facto prevailed at the expense of humanity, the rule of law and justice.
In addition to recovering looted artefacts, I have catalogued each repatriation, whether by civil case, criminal case or alternative restitution. I have also created an NGO in The Hague, the city of Peace and Justice, to articulate lessons learned for others to be able to protect their cultural heritage called walk of Truth.
One month ago, our organization signed an MOU with University College London to jointly use my archives and establish a research and innovation center in Nicosia in Cyprus. Among its aims are to create concepts and technologies to promote and protect cultural heritage in areas of war and conflict. I am inviting you – my Armenian brothers and sisters – to become partners in this initiative and to deposit all the case studies of the destruction of Nagorno Karabagk to be studied for years to come. I also call on you to lobby with us to ensure that the law is enforced and, where there are gaps, to lobby for changes to the law. In these ways, we may protect our religious heritage and our religious as well as cultural freedoms.
As our respective stories relate to the brutality of conflict, the search for peace and the value of reconciliation, let me end with three messages.
The first message is the wise warning issued by the Reverend Dr Martin Luther King, Jr, in his Letter addressed to his ‘fellow clergymen’ from the Jail of Birmingham, Alabama, dated 16 April 1963. This is what Martin Luther King wrote:
‘Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny.’
The timeless remarks of Martin Luther King are clearly applicable to every victim of every injustice arising from genocide, ethnic cleansing, persecution, discrimination, the destruction of cultural heritage and other forms of inhuman conduct. More to the point, the remarks of Martin Luther King are applicable to the victims of Turkey and the allies of Turkey whenever they have suffered injustice and wherever they have suffered injustice.
In practice, to borrow the words of Dr King, the Armenian victims of Turkey in 1915 ‘are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality’ that also encompasses others, including the Greek victims of Turkey in 1922, the Cypriot victims of Turkey in 1974 and all victims of Turkey – plus its allies – today.
These victims not only include the dead, the relatives of the dead and the living who have been forcibly uprooted from their homes. These victims also include all of the churches that have been de facto de-Christianised, the congregations that have been involuntarily dispersed, all of the icons that have been stolen and all of the cemeteries that have been desecrated.
The second message is another wise warning on a similar theme. It is the warning issued by Benjamin Ferencz, the last living US prosecutor who tried the Nazi war criminals in Nuremberg during the late 1940s. According to him:
‘There can be no peace without justice, no justice without law and no meaningful law without a Court to decide what is just and lawful under any given circumstance.’
In other words, the pursuit of peace and the pursuit of reconciliation must be tied to the search for justice via the application of law enforced by the courts.
Ferencz was one of the driving forces behind the formation of the International Criminal Court in The Hague, where I live today. Yet, Turkey has neither signed nor ratified the Rome Statute establishing the Court. Unfortunately Armenia also did not ratify the Rome Statute which must be your priority now. That attitude of Turkey towards ICC (failure to sign & ratify) reflects Turkey’s detachment from the rule of law and, as such, speaks volumes. So, too, does an astonishing fact relating to the official statistics of another international court – the European Court of Human Rights, the judicial body which oversees human rights in the 47 member states of the Council of Europe, including Turkey. In terms of judgments of the Court finding at least one violation of the European Convention of Human Rights, Turkey has acquired the worst human rights record in Europe for the period from 1959 until 2020.
My third message follows on from the previous two. Every individual victim of Turkey must appreciate that he or she forms part of a collective whole consisting of Armenians, Greeks be they from Cyprus or elsewhere, and others. In turn, that collective whole must confront injustice by taking legal action, via criminal as well as civil courts and by taking political action via the mechanisms of democracy. Inaction is not an option.
My own experiences illustrate the power of the courts as means by which a measure of cultural justice may be delivered in the face of cultural injustice.
In closing, therefore, I am inviting you to join hands with our lawyers and to develop a strategy – to take legal action, to expose the inhumanity for which Turkey and Azabeijan are responsible and to end the oppression of our religious freedoms.
 For a transcript, see https://www.africa.upenn.edu/Articles_Gen/Letter_Birmingham.html
 See www.jtl.columbia.edu/volume57-3/no-peace-without-justice-no-justice-without-law-a-review-essay and https://static1.squarespace.com/static/5daf8b1ab45413657badbc03/t/5ee1648556a12e76f7719409/1591829639562/Shulman_CTL-57-649.pdf
 See www.echr.coe.int/Documents/Overview_19592020_ENG.pdf especially at page 9.