Pro-Cypriot Conservative MP for north London Theresa Villiers has spoken in a House of Commons debate on protecting religious freedom, highlighting a number of concerns about the desecration and destruction of churches in the occupied part of Cyprus.

In her speech to MPs, Ms Villiers said “Cyprus has an ancient civilisation dating back to 9,000 BC. Close to the Holy Land, it was one of the first countries to embrace Christianity. It is believed that in 45 AD the apostles Paul, Barnabas and Mark visited Cyprus. The island is home to a huge number of churches, monasteries, mosaics, murals and icons that stretch back to the earliest days of Christianity.”

She went on to explain that in July 1974 Turkey invaded Cyprus and that it continues to occupy 37% of the territory of the Republic of Cyprus. “Since the invasion,” she added, “about 500 churches have been desecrated or badly neglected, 77 have been converted into mosques, 28 have been used as barracks by the Turkish military and 13 are believed to have been used as storage rooms or hay barns. Thousands of priceless icons have been looted.”

She pointed to a “thriving” illicit trade in cultural artefacts, that not only perpetuates the destruction of religious sites, but finances criminal activities.

“Many religious sites are impossible to access because they are located in Turkish military zones. There are worrying instances of Orthodox and Maronite Christians who live in enclaved communities in the Turkish-controlled area of Cyprus being unjustly prevented from conducting religious services and practising their faith,” she noted.

In closing, she appealed to the UK Government to work with international partners “to protect the cultural heritage of Cyprus, bear down on the illegal trade in artefacts and, above all, put pressure on the Turkish authorities to restore full freedom of religion in the north of Cyprus, as well as giving Cypriots the freedom to determine their own future, free from Turkish military control.”

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