Religion

Walk of Truth calls for action after the Conference on Freedom of Religion or Belief

Tasoula Hadjitofi, a refugee from Famagusta, cultural activist and president of Walk of Truth NGO, spoke in front of 800 participants from 100 countries and 60 ministers as an embodiment of agony and disappointment, her own and the Cypriot people’s, over the systematic and as yet unpunished violation of their religious freedom’s rights by Turkey’s occupying forces in Cyprus.

Ms Hadjitofi, one of the keynote speakers at the International Ministerial Conference to promote Freedom of Religion or Belief that took place in London on 5 and 6 July 2022, used her talk to send important messages to foreign representatives. She was also present at the event in her capacity as “The Icon Hunter”, the title of her book on Cyprus’ cultural treasures, looted by Turkey, and her ongoing struggle to repatriate stolen and illegally sold cultural goods.

The Conference was organized by the British government with the aim to “bring together governments, parliamentarians, faith and belief representatives and civil society in order to urge increased global action on freedom of religion or belief for all”.

Addressing Conference participants and thousands of online attendees, Ms Hadjitofi said she felt she spoke on behalf of everyone in the world who had been affected by war, who had suffered discriminations because of their faith or national identity, who has been denied their collective memories and rights of religious freedom. And she asked:

“Can you envisage being a 14-year-old girl in 1974, in the Republic of Cyprus, the Island of love and beauty?  Can you imagine going to sleep full of dreams and then waking up after being threatened by the invading forces of Turkey which are using Napalm incendiary bombs and raping women and children around you? Can you begin to understand the impact this experience has on a child that sees as well as smells death, feels alone, abandoned and unprotected?  Can you sense why that child felt exposed when nobody came to the rescue as that child was subjected to a forcible population transfer and, thus, ethnic cleansing? Can you understand why this child grew up to be critical of international policy makers and acquired a tendency to walk alone in life?”

“This child”, she added, “is me”. And she continued: “Due to my war-torn childhood experiences, I lost faith in the strong and powerful to provide justice. Yet, this prompted me to take justice into my own hands and I became an Icon Hunter, also the title of my book. I travelled the world, worked under cover with police forces to expose crooks and antiquities smugglers. My mission was to take away from those crooks and smugglers what they had stolen from me: pieces of my happy youth; the frescoes, mosaics and icons which were looted from the Churches and monasteries where I – and so many others – prayed in what became, in 1974, the Turkish-occupied north of Cyprus”.

The President of Walk of Truth spoke in a dramatic tone as she addressed participants with these words: “I have a dream. I want to make one last pilgrimage before I die. I want to be able to go to my home, to pray to the Apostle Barnabas Monastery where I was baptized. I can’t because it was pillaged and converted to a museum. I want to go to St Mamas church in the village of Mandres, where my parents had gotten married. I can’t because it was looted and converted to a mosque. I want to go to Famagusta, the ghost-city, my city and my church. But I can’t go because everywhere I turn there’s barbwire and my church has been looted, ruined, robbed of its icons and mosaics that make part of my prayer”.

“In July 2021, Turkish President R.T. Erdogan announced he would go to Famagusta, my city, and pray at an illegal mosque. There was nobody there. I went to the site accompanied by two German reporters of Spiegel magazine. Erdogan prayed “from a distance” even as I could not pray in front of my looted church. There was not a single UN soldier there. There was no one to protect me. And I felt the same as I did when I was 14 years old. Today I am 63 and I still feel the same way”. 

Ms Hadjitofi also referred to the 1974 Turkish invasion of Cyprus, describing with dramatic clarity how she had erased from her memory the horror of the war, keeping only one image that stays with her to this day:

“My mother, a pious Christian Orthodox, is kneeling in front of the icon of Apostle Andreas praying, whilst holding the candle that she saved from our last Easter in Famagusta.  So, I have dedicated my life to chasing around the world to track down looted icons and frescoes to bring them back to all Christian Orthodox mothers, fathers, sisters and brothers so they can pray for our freedom, as well as for our resurrection as a free and democratic nation”.

In the last part of her address – which caused a stir and stroke an emotional chord among most of the participants, prompting them to ask for more details about Turkey’s violations of religious freedoms in Cyprus – Ms Hadjitofi raised three crucial questions:

  • Firstly, what is the point of having, on paper, that which Foreign Secretary Truss described yesterday as ‘the freedom to believe, to pray and commit acts of worship’ if that freedom and related human rights are systematically violated by ‘authoritarians and oppressors’, as she called the perpetrators of such violations?
  • Secondly, what is the point of having, on paper, international humanitarian law, the law of occupation and international criminal law if these critically important areas of law are effectively rendered useless because of the selective delivery of international criminal justice?
  • Thirdly, what is the point of having, on paper, the worthy statements published yesterday, including that on ‘Freedom of religion or belief in conflict or insecure contexts’, if such statements are not accompanied with concrete actions which actively change the situation on the ground?  In this context, I must also ask a follow-up question. Why is Turkey not on the list of co-signatories?

“Impunity must end.  We need universal respect for the rule of law and a uniform delivery of justice” were Ms Hadjitofi’s closing remarks.

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