Tragedy in Paradise: Orthodox Christians Remember Cyprus Before the Turkish Invasion

The Island of Cyprus resides in the warm waters of Mediterranean sea, nestled between Turkey and Lebanon. Cyprus is one of the oldest recorded civilizations in the world, dating back to 9,000 years ago (5). It is the home of rich Greek-Cypriot culture and heritage, along with the birthplace of the goddess of love, Aphrodite. Cyprus’ Orthodox Christian roots are evident in its many mountainous monasteries, medieval and Byzantine churches and unique, religious frescos. Yet these religious monuments can only be appreciated on sixty percent of the island. The other forty percent is occupied by Turkish troops, ever since the barbaric Turkish invasion of 1974. The “occupied” side has been decimated and inhabited by foreigners since the invasion and is source of great pain for the Cypriot people. The invasion took not only the most prosperous areas of Cyprus, but also its oldest and most beautiful churches and monasteries; the war not only brought in invaders, but settlers of Islamic faith to the island. The Turkish Invasion of 1974 changed the religious climate of Cyprus by abusing many important religious locations and artifacts, by bringing many Islamic believers to the island, and by uprooting and decimating families, therefore resulting in a rise in faithfulness amongst refugees but also leading to a decline of faith in future Cypriot generations.

Religion was not the initial issue of the Turkish invasion but it became one of the many factors that were impacted by Turkey’s expansionist aims.

The Turkish military invaded the island of Cyprus throughout July and August of 1974, under the codename “Operation Attila” (5). The Turkish government not only conquered the most financially fruitful portion of the island and made a third of Cypriot population into refugees, but simultaneously continued to execute a methodical strategy to change the demographic format of Cyprus. Turkey transferred tens of thousands of Turkish peasants illegally to the occupied side and settled them into the homes of the now refugees. Billions of dollars worth of property were distributed to Turkish colonizers (9). With the intention of erasing all historical and religious evidence of Cypriot presence on the occupied side, “…the Turkish forces of occupation went so far as to convert a considerable number of churches into mosques, while many others were desecrated, looted and demolished…” (9), towns and streets were given Turkish names, and archaeological sites along with cemeteries were destroyed (1). Today there are over 43,000 heavily armed Turkish troops on the occupied side (5). Religion was not the initial issue of the Turkish invasion but it became one of the many factors that were impacted by Turkey’s expansionist aims.

Cyprus church

[Above: The inside of this church. It is used for dance parties.]

Here is how Orthodoxy was targeted on the occupied side in a tangible sense: 78 churches have been converted into mosques, more than 530 churches and monasteries have been desecrated (10), 18 churches are used as depots, barracks, or infirmaries for the Turkish military forces, 113 churches are used as storage rooms or hay barns, one church has been turned into a hotel, one church has been rented out as an art school, the cemeteries of 25 villages have been destroyed, over 15,000 icons, and more than 60,000 religious artifacts and archaeological treasures have been stolen and smuggled abroad (1,10). Such substantial damage was, of course, horrifying to the Cypriots who lived there, and those memories are carried with those who survived the war and then passed on to their children through oral tradition. I observed these lasting psychological events in three Cypriots from my own life that I chose to interview for my project. I interviewed Tofi Christophi, Androulla Malhi and Yiota Kutulas, and asked them to speak about their experiences and thoughts on the 1974 invasion. To provide some background on my three interview subjects, Christophi was a refugee who experienced the invasion as a young married man, while Malhi became a refugee as a 10-year-old girl in a family of six. Kutulas is a Cypriot descendent who grew up in the San Francisco area as a daughter of refugees and eventually moved to Cyprus as an adult and continues to raise her children there.

When I asked how Christophi felt about the destruction of churches due to the invasion, the response was potent: “it is a travesty, pure barbaric action. A destruction of our faith.” When Malhi was asked the same question, her answer was, “ It means that a lot of the churches have been vandalized, destroyed. They tore down the icons that had been thousands of years old, and churches that were thousands of years old. A lot of churches that the villagers were named after, including my daughter and I, were destroyed by the Turks. My village’s church and my mother’s church have been turned into places for dance and entertainment instead of a place of worship” (6). Kutulas’ answer coincided with the others, saying, “(The invasion showed) intolerance and total disrespect for others’ religious beliefs and cultural heritage. Unacceptable”. It is clear from these responses that Cypriot believers interpreted the demolition of religious sites and artifacts as personal offenses.

To understand how the Turkish invasion of 1974 affected religious identification, it is important to look at some relevant statistics. A 2004 report determined that 96% of the Cypriot government-regulated portion of Cyprus identified as Greek Orthodox, while 99% of the occupied side identified as Muslim (4). Those numbers speak volumes. If there had been no invasion and occupation of Cyprus, I hypothesize that the religious makeup of the free side would be have been analogous to the makeup of the whole island. The issue is not the fact that a strong presence of another religious tradition was forced upon this country, it is the fact that Turkey went out of its way to decimate Cypriot history and culture for its own expansionist gains. These statistics show utter lack of regard and respect for the ancient traditions of another civilization.

Christianity and Cypriot culture are so intertwined that it is almost unnatural to discuss Cyprus without mentioning Orthodoxy.

Christianity has always had a strong history in Cyprus. The religion arrived on the island in the 1st century via trade routes, being that Cyprus has lots of profitable seaports and was rich with copper, which is where the name “Kypros” is derived from. After the stoning of Stephen in Jerusalem, Cyprus was one of the destinations that believers fled to in order to escape persecution (11). Even the famous Lazarus from the biblical material came to Cyprus and was ordained by Barnabas and Paul, becoming archbishop. Lazarus’ tomb can be found in Larnaca today. It is clear that Christianity and Cypriot culture are so intertwined that it is almost unnatural to discuss Cyprus without mentioning Orthodoxy.

In relation to Orthodoxy, the predominant church on the island is The Orthodox Church of Cyprus. According to the Acts of the Apostles, it was founded by Barnabas, Paul and Mark in 45 AD (3). The presence of the Orthodox Church has been influential to the historical, cultural, and social life of Cyprus. The Orthodox Church of Cyprus is split up into 6 bishoprics: the Holy Archbishopric in Lefkosia, the Holy Bishopric of Paphos, the Holy Bishopric of Kition in Larnaca, the Holy Bishopric of Keryneia, the Holy Bishopric of Lemesos and the Holy Bishopric of Morphou (3). Both the Bishopric of Keryneia and the Bishopric of Morphou are on the occupied side, and therefore have been temporarily shut down since 1974. These Bishoprics both have temporary locations in “free” Cyprus, but these buildings are considerably smaller, less grandiose, and lack the historical authenticity of their former establishments.

Next, I explored the change of religious integrity of Christians specifically. I asked the refugees if they felt that the invasion had changed the religious climate and if so, in what way. Kutulas provided the most in-depth answer,

“Before the invasion of Cyprus in 1974, family was a more tight knit unit. Religion was intertwined into all parts of life, from the beginning when a baby was born until he/she dies. There was a solemn reverence and faith for the religion. If someone had a problem at home with his/her spouse or any other family or extended family, the local priest would be called upon to mediate, advise and guide. Today we have specialized, highly educated counselors, therapists and psychologists for these issues. That does not mean that the priest are not educated. Many people still do seek spiritual advice from their local priest. Our local priest has a PhD in the New Testament. He is the only priest in Cyprus with a doctorate in the New Testament. Perhaps before 1974, life was more simple, and the main pillars of life were family and religion. Nowadays, the family is not as strong as pre-’74, and nor is religion” (8).

Kutulas provided a lot of unique insight into this question, being that she is a Cypriot descendent who eventually moved to Cyprus to live on the “free” side, and therefore has been able to observe the change of religious fervor directly.

Cyrpus church 2

[Above: Another church that is used as a barn for animals. It was covered in animal feces.]

Malhi provided interesting information in regards to the effect the invasion had on the celebration of religious holidays. She claims that the religious climate has been affected by the inability for Cypriots to celebrate religious holidays to their fullest. In pre-74, peoples from all the nearby villages would travel to a church whose “yiorti” or name day of the church’s patron saint was being celebrated (6). And there would be a huge festival filled with dance and song (6). Now those churches have all been destroyed and the Cypriots cannot celebrate those same festivals anymore (6). Recently, some churches have built new grounds on the free side, but these new buildings are very small and depressing. In my own experience, if a person wished to travel to the occupied side to visit the ruins, they would have to be extensively “cleared” to go through the checkpoint and would only be able to enter with one or two other people for a brief period of time. No celebration could be made on the Turkish side without being met with violence.

I was kicked out of my village, my church I went to from birth, where I got baptized, where my family attended for generations, where I got married, the burial grounds of my ancestors.

It became clear in my interviews that the invasion had a dual effect on the Cypriot population. On the one hand, young Cypriots seem to have less regard for religious belief as a result of the invasion yet adults who have lived through the 1974 warfare feel strengthened in their faith. When Christophi was asked if the invasion had affected his faith, his response was, “Yes, I was kicked out of my village, my church I went to from birth, where I got baptized, where my family attended for generations, where I got married, the burial grounds of my ancestors.” When asking Malhi if she felt the invasion strengthened her faith, she gave me an emphatic “yes” while holding back tears(6).

A different picture was painted when I questioned Kutulas about whether the invasion had impacted the religious devotion of the younger generation, “I do believe that the younger community’s religious life, and life in general, has been impacted after the invasion. Youth here in Cyprus are not as devoted as youth were before 1974. Circumstances, events and experiences make people evolve in different ways. Some young people’s beliefs and interests are different nowadays due to different factors. Some are interested in doing other things rather than spending an hour in Church on Sunday, or praying to give thanks to God before/after a meal, or even saying, “Thank God….” (8). Both Christophi and Malhi’s statements coincided with her answer. There could be a variety of reasons why this has occurred, but it is obvious that the decline of faith in the next generation of Cypriots is directly correlated with the traumatic timeline of Cyprus itself.

what future will arise/from a war…?

Maria Kyriacou, a Cypriot Refugee and poet, wrote poem called Fear of Terror that was inspired by the invasion of 1975: “Future… what future will arise/from a war inflicted/petrified with lies/terrified generation left conflicted/to flee or to stand your ground/if you hide… will you be found/Have hope that guilt will manifest in those in power/the flicker of morality will ignite within/before all /once ́sweet becomes sour”. These verses paint a potent picture of the fears of Cypriots today for their beloved island. It is important to spread awareness of the consequences of Turkey’s actions, not just in a physical and emotional sense, but also in a cultural, religious, and historical sense. The academic study of religion makes it possible to study the effects of the invasion with more depth than ever before.



  1. Hierodiakonou, Leontios. “Consequences of the Turkish Invasion.” The Cyprus Question. Stockholm: Almqvist & Wiksell, 1971. 22-36. Print.
  2. Hitchens, Christopher. “Conclusion.” Cyprus . London: Quartet, 1984. 162-68. Print.
  3. “Church of Cyprus.” Cyprus Travellers Handbook: Everything You Want to Know about Your Stay in Cyprus. Cyprus: Cyprus Tourism Organisation, 2006. 62. Print.
  4. “Cyprus.” Worldmark Encyclopedia of Nations. 2007, Tonya Huber, “Cyprus.” Cities of the 
World. 2002, Emre Ozsoz, “Cyprus.” The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th Ed.. 2015,
Alexander Kitroeff, Roy Neil Graves, “Cyprus.” Junior Worldmark Encyclopedia of Physical Geography. 2003, “Cyprus.” World Encyclopedia. 2005, John Cannon,
YIANNIS PAPADAKIS, TOM McARTHUR, “Cyprus.” Junior Worldmark
Encyclopedia of World Cultures. 1999, and “Cyprus.” Oxford Dictionary of Rhymes. 2007. “Cyprus.” . HighBeam Research, 01 Jan. 2007. Web. 08 Mar. 2016. <;
  5. Cyprus: A Political Question. Nicosia: and Information Office, Republic of Cyprus, 
1988. Print.
  6. “Interview of Androulla Malhi.” Personal interview. 6 Mar. 2016.
  7. “Interview of Tofi Christophi.” E-mail interview. 7 Mar. 2016.
  8. “Interview of Yiota Kutulas.” E-mail interview. 29 Feb. 2016.
  9. Religious Tolerance and Freedom of Worship in Cyprus. Nicosia: G.M Kailas, n.d. Print.
  10. “The Last Church Standing in Occupied Cyprus.” Haimaterē Alētheia = Bloody Truth. First ed.Leukōsia: Kinēsē Gia Eleutheria & Dikaiosynē, 2009. 164-68. Print.
11. “The Early Christian History of Cyprus to the 5th Century.” Ring of Christ. N.p., n.d. Web. 09 Mar. 2016. < >.
Interview Questions:
1. What does Cyprus mean to you?
2. What does the “occupied side” mean to you?
3. What do the destruction of churches on the “occupied side” mean to you?
4.. Do you feel that the religious climate in Cyprus has changed because of the invasion? If so, in what way?
5. Do you feel that the invasion has negatively impacted your religious life?
6. Do you feel that the younger community in Cyprus feels the impact of the invasion on their religious life?


*Note from the editors: The featured artwork of this article, Laocoön by El Greco, was downloaded from The National Gallery of Art website, which has made thousands of works of art available for free use by the public. We at Matter Thoughts would like to express our gratitude to the museum for making this precious resource available to art lovers and scholars alike.

Andriana Malhi has her B.A. in Psychology and Religious Studies from UC Davis and is currently earning her Psy.D. in Clinical Psychology at the American School of Professional Psychology in Phoenix, Arizona. Andriana’s research interests include forensic psychology, neuropsychology, and the Abrahamic faiths. Andriana aims to demonstrate to fellow psychology professionals the importance of being educated in religious studies when working with diverse populations.