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United States and Turkey Sign Cultural Property Agreement

United States and Turkey
Hagia Sophia, the great cathedral of Eastern Christianity, which served as a museum for decades but was turned into a mosque under Turkey’s Erdogan regime. Credit: pxfuel

The United States and Turkey signed a “Cultural Property Agreement” on Tuesday which ostensibly calls for the protection of cultural property in Turkey but has set off alarm bells in the academic community, with many fearing that it paves the way for the erasure of Greek history in the country.

U.S. Ambassador to the Republic of Turkey David Satterfield and Turkish Minister of Culture and Tourism Mehmet Ersoy signed the bilateral Memorandum of Understanding which states that Turkish cultural property will be protected.

In an announcement, the State Department said that the agreement is “an example of the United States’ enduring work with Turkey to combat cultural property trafficking and to preserve heritage items by allowing the U.S. to establish import restrictions on certain categories of Turkey’s cultural property.”

The destroyed church of St. Irene (Agia Eirini) at Morphou, occupied northern Cyprus. Credit: Cypriot Ministry of Foreign Affairs

The agreement, it says, “also gives U.S. law enforcement the ability to repatriate trafficked cultural objects back to Turkey while fostering the interchange of Turkish cultural heritage with U.S. institutions. In addition, it demonstrates our respect for Turkey’s longstanding religious, ethnic, and cultural diversity.”

However, earlier this year, when it became apparent that the memorandum of understanding would be signed, experts in the area of cultural diplomacy warned of the outcome of such an agreement.

“Destroy, appropriate and expropriate”

Many academicians in this area believe the MoU grants free rein to Turkey to pillage and loot the movable remnants of civilizations which once flourished in Turkey going as far back as 12,000 years.

Dr. Elizabeth Prodromou, a visiting Associate Professor of Conflict Resolution at the Fletcher School, a graduate school for international affairs at Tufts University in Boston, sees the potential signing of the new agreement as “preposterous, even outrageous,” considering Turkey’s history of looting, pillaging and selling artifacts from the Hellenic and Byzantine civilizations which once flourished within what now are its borders.

Dr. Elizabeth Prodromou, a visiting Professor at the Fletcher School, Tufts University. Credit: The Fletcher School

In October of 2019, the government of Turkey sent a request to the United States to sign a Memorandum, ostensibly for the “imposing of import restrictions to protect its cultural patrimony under Article 9 of the 1970 Convention,” according to the introduction to the document.

However, cultural heritage experts and professionals, as well as social scientists and diplomacy experts such as Dr. Prodromou, believe this is simply a smokescreen for Turkey to continue its campaign to “destroy, appropriate and expropriate” any artifacts from all cultures which once flourished in what is now Turkey, including the Hellenic and Byzantine civilizations.

Prodromou explained that the cultural pillaging and looting which took place in occupied northern Cyprus after the Turkish invasion of 1974 reflects an ongoing pattern engaged in by Turkey regarding artifacts from any culture which preceded their own rule and will serve as a foretaste of what will happen after the possible signing of the MOU.

In a recent podcast with interviewers from the Hellenic American Leadership Council, the religion and geopolitics expert lamented that the Memorandum “would enable the Turkish state, unfortunately, to continue to do what they have done in the past; that is, to destroy, expropriate and appropriate — and that is why it is so concerning, because it will produce exactly the opposite outcome of such MOU’s, which are intended to protect cultural heritage.”

The Christian cemetery in Rizokarpaso, occupied Cyprus. Credit: Cypriot Ministry of Foreign Affairs

Speaking to Greek Reporter in an exclusive interview, the Tufts professor says that the United States “even considering” such an agreement was out of the question in light of how Turkey has disregarded all conventions and cultural norms as laid out by UNESCO and other global organizations.

Prodromou explains that there are four threshold conditions that must exist in order for the US to sign such an agreement — according to its own stipulations as established in its own cultural heritage laws, namely the 1983 Cultural Property Implementation Act — and that Turkey meets none of those four metrics.

“Turkey’s actions in occupied Cyprus should figure into the MOU discussions, because Turkey is considered an occupying power under international law and therefore, according to international law, Turkey must meet its obligations to safeguard and protect the cultural heritage, both tangible and intangible, in occupied Cyprus,” she states.

The interior of the church of the Archangel Michael, Famagusta, occupied northern Cyprus. Credit: Cypriot Ministry of Foreign Affairs

“Destroy, Pillage and Loot”

Prodromou notes that “this is obvious to anyone who has seen the documented evidence or traveled to occupied Cyprus. And indeed Turkey has utilized the occupation of the northern part of Cyprus to destroy, pillage and loot the rich cultural and religious heritage of that part of the island.

“I think that’s an important statement in and of itself, but it also relates directly to the paradoxes of the preposterous notion that Turkey could satisfy the “four threshold” requirements that are foundational for this proposed MoU,” she adds.

“One, the cultural property of the requesting country must be in jeopardy of pillage. If we look at Turkey’s behavior in occupied Cyprus, yes, that is indeed the case. But it is in danger of pillage by whom? The danger of pillage is directly from the Turkish occupation authorities, the very state required to protect, and entrusted with protecting, that cultural property.

“So we have empirical evidence, just in the case of occupied Cyprus, but certainly more broadly as well, that the notion that Turkey will be protecting cultural heritage from being looted is preposterous,” Prodromou charges.

The Tuesday announcement from the State department maintained that the United States is “unwavering in its commitment to protect and preserve cultural heritage around the world and to restrict trafficking in cultural property, which is often used to fund terrorist and criminal networks.

“This cultural property agreement with Turkey was negotiated by the State Department under the U.S. law implementing the 1970 Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property. The United States has cultural property agreements with countries around the world, as well as emergency import restrictions on cultural property from Iraq, Syria, and Yemen.”

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