Inside Nicosia’s demolition scandal: how the Church controls cultural heritage

Will the Church of Cyprus rebuilt the partially destroyed buildings in Nicosia? Image: Antigoni Michael

The recent demolition of four listed buildings by the Church of Cyprus caused an uproar in Nicosia. Now, a month later, the buildings have not been restored yet. But the row continues as a group of citizens demanded the prosecution of the Archbishop responsible.

In an open letter to the general attorney, the group argues that the state is too lenient in punishing the head of the Church of Cyprus for destroying listed built heritage, reported Kathimerini. But why did the destruction of the buildings owned by the Church itself cause a political scandal? And what does this mean for the future of Cypriot cultural heritage?

European Heritage Youth AmbassadorAntigoni Michael

New Cathedral

“It’s not the first time the Church of Cyprus has destroyed built heritage and gotten away with it”, sighs Antigoni Michael, an archaeologist and European Heritage Youth Ambassador from Cyprus. She continues: “The Church seemed like they wanted to get rid of the houses. They blocked the view of the massive, concrete cathedral that’s is being built behind the site.”

Right after the demolition, the Church promised to restore the destroyed buildings within six months. “Right now, nothing has changed”, A. Michael says as she shows some pictures she took from the partially destroyed structures. “People are tired of the corrupt government. The illegal demolition of these buildings formed just one scandal too many for many Cypriots.”

”It’s not the first time the Church destroyed built heritage and gotten away with it”

History Lesson

To understand why the Church has so much political power in Cyprus and why it owns so many monumental buildings, we need to look at history. “During the Ottoman Empire, the Greek Orthodox Church played a crucial role for Cyprus’ Greek speaking citizens and their identity-forming”, A. Michael says. 

Because of the protection and heavy taxation, many Christians turned the management and ownership of their houses over to the Church. That’s how the Cypriot Church ended up with a large property of monumental buildings. ”There are cases that the Department of Antiquities manages a space (e.g. Hadjigworgakis Kornesios House), while the Church formally owns it.” It results in a constant battle over cultural heritage, in which the Church is more often than not the winner.

The graffiti on the fence reads: ”You ate everything”, criticizing the power and wealth of the Church of Cyprus. Image: Antigoni Michael

”On a political level, the state and the Church are closely entangled”, A. Michael explains. ”Makarios III was the first president of Cyprus, but he was also the Archbishop. Many people trusted the Church more than they trusted politicians.”

Awareness for cultural heritage

The close relationship between state and Church is still intact, according to A. Michael. ”However, the younger generation is done with the scandals and the political power of the Archbishop.” It explains the bold open letter from residents demanding the prosecution of the head of the Church of Cyprus.

She believes that it is time for the Church to listen to the people of Cyrpus. ”I want to make this very clear. I don’t think the Archbishop is an evil man. He has a different perspective on life. But he needs to open up and learn from the younger generation how we should treat Cyrpus’ cultural heritage.”

”I don’t think the Archbishop is an evil man. (…) But he needs to open up and learn from the younger generation”

In her work as an archaeologist, A. Michael focusses on public engagement with cultural heritage. ”It’s vital that Cypriots realize that their cultural heritage is not only architecture. The destroyed houses were decorated with folk art on the limestones and represented various things. For example, the way Cypriot households were kept, or their importance in the urban landscape. That’s what makes these houses heritage, not only because they are old.” 

For now, the buildings remain in ruins. The Church says it is collecting offers from construction companies to restore them. ”The Archbishop was shocked that it turned into a political scandal”, A. Michael says. ”It shows that the Church is used to getting away with this. But, times are changing. The new generation is not taking this anymore.”

Source: Antigoni Michael, Kathimerini (Greek) and Wikipedia

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