Turks to turn monks' cells into hotel

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The Independent Online
"WE KNOW the Turks took everything from our monastery - even the roof, the windows and doors - but we never imagined they would want to turn it into a hotel." Father Varten Sandrouni raises his hands in a combination of piety and hopelessness. St Magar's 10th century Armenian monastery high on the mountain above Kyrenia was lost to the Turks in their 1974 invasion of northern Cyprus, but this year's Turkish newspaper headlines have shocked the small community of Armenians here.

"One million dollars will be spent for the restoration of the monastery that will be leased for 49 years," says the headline in the Turkish Cypriot Kibris Postasi. To the fury of the Armenians, the accompanying story even says that "another monument, part of the cultural heritage of Cyprus yet derelict for a number of years now, is going to be saved". As Father Sandrouni remarks acidly, it was not the Armenians who caused St Magar's dereliction. Nor have the Turks hitherto shown much interest in preserving Armenian cultural treasures.

Under international law, of course, the monastery still belongs to the Armenians, who are now investigating the possibility of taking Turkey to the European Court. But ever since the genocide of 1915 - when Turks killed around one and a half million Armenians in the century's first holocaust - Turkey has not cared much for Armenian rights. According to Ali Kanli, the director of the Turkish Cypriot department of museums and ancient monuments, the unrecognised statelet of northern Cyprus - unrecognised, that is, except by Turkey itself - cannot afford to restore the monastery buildings. Which is why he had accepted an offer from Dervis Sonmezler, a local businessman, to turn the site into a hotel.

If the Turks claim that the monastery is collapsing through lack of maintenance, the Armenians can hardly be blamed. Photographs of the font show it covered in Turkish graffiti. Armenian plaques have been smashed, doorways broken. "We had just refurbished the place when the Turks invaded," Father Sandrouni says. "We lost everything - including the orchards of carob and olives which made about 9,000 Cyprus pounds [pounds 11,800] a year for our church. I cannot believe that the Turks now say it was 'unmaintained' and that they want to make it into a hotel. It belongs to us."

The Greek Cypriot government in Nicosia has complained for more than two decades at the vandalism visited upon churches in Turkish-controlled Cyprus; the Council of Europe has already investigated the state of St Magar's, originally a Coptic monastery. The Armenians have sent an urgent request to the World Council of Churches to intercede.

The Armenians took over the monastery in 1875 - they received the title deeds under British rule in 1944 - and for decades before 1915 it was a retreat and way station for Armenians travelling to and from their homes in southern Turkey.

"Over the past 70 years, we Armenians would go up to the mountainside and picnic at the monastery," Father Sandrouni remembers. "We went there to celebrate weddings and feast days and for funerals - there is a small Armenian graveyard nearby. We owned - we still own - all the land from the mountain down to the sea. When our people used to arrive from western Armenia [southern Turkey], they would see the monastery from their ship before it docked in Kyrenia."

But Kyrenia is now the Turkish Cypriot port of Girne - a Turkish gunboat is alongside most days - and many of the Western tourists in its streets have little idea of the history of northern Cyprus. Some may one day find themselves in a hotel which was once St Magar's, although its Armenian identity is likely to have vanished. "What can we do?" Father Sandrouni asks. "We haven't the power to do anything. We believe it is up to the big world powers to help us - if they have a good Christian heart."

Some hope. Father Sandrouni, who is 76, still remembers his parents' stories of the Armenian genocide. His father survived imprisonment by the Turks but his mother lost her home in Smyrna (now Izmir) when the Turks recaptured the city from the Greeks in 1920. "The Allied fleet was in the harbour, but they were under orders not to help the Armenians. When she went to one Western ship for help, the crew poured boiling water on her to stop her boarding."