Re-opening of a Mosque after 51 Years
Syyed Mansoor Agha
Religious leaders show the way of unity to divided Cyprus
It was not a big event but made big news from a suburb of Nicosia, the Capital City of Cyprus. On Tuesday, 3 June 2014, a Mosque was re-opened after 51 years, thanks to the dialogue between Orthodox Christian and Muslim religious leaders. Mufti Talip Atalay (Talib Ata Ali), the Head of Religious Affairs of Turkish-Cyprus led the congregation of Zuhur Salat. Only seven Muslims were present to offer the obligatory prayer in his following.
The Mosque is located in ‘Mahalla Tahtakale’ under the administrative control of Greek Cypriots. The Mufti was invited for the ceremony by Archbishop Chrysostomos as part of ongoing “Religious Trust for Peace Process.” The Mosque was closed since 23 Dec, 1963 after ethnic strife forced Muslims to flee from south Cyprus.
Mufti Atalay recalled that Tahtakale was one of the first areas from where Turkish Cypriots had to flee just three years after the country gained independence from Britain.
Cyprus, with 77.1 percent Greeks (mostly Orthodox Christians) and 18.2 Turk Muslims was declared a Democratic Republic under a widely agreed constitution in 1960. It was a Greek Cypriot defacto coup that created ethnic/religious strife and ultimately divided the nation in ‘Greek’ and ‘Turkish’ Cyprus in 1974. The coup leaders wanted union of Cyprus with Greek on ethnic grounds. Greek is some 900 Km from the Iceland country of Cyprus. Military Junta of Greek allegedly abetted the gorilla war which failed in its objective after Turkey intervened. Turkey ruled the Cyprus for 300 years, and had a role in maintaining peace under the agreement which granted independence to Cyprus. Political efforts to unite two parts did not produce much result. In this background Swedish initiative of dialogue between religious leaders and achieving some breakthrough is significant.
The Mosque was closed since 21 December 1963. The re-opening ceremony passed away without fan fare but was marked as a beginning of an era of reconciliation among warring Greek-Cypriots, who swear to Orthodox Christianity and the Muslims in the Mediterranean Iceland nation of just 0.8 million population. It is being hoped that the event, a result of prolonged dialogue since 2009 will have softening effect on the moods on both sides and overall atmosphere will improve for unity move.
The Humble Ceremony
The humble ceremony was attended by Father Savvas Hacıyonas, Mr. Klas Gierow, Swedish ambassador to the Greek Cypriot administration and the facilitators of interreligious dialogue, Salpy Eskidjian and Peter Weiderud.
EVKAF (Auqaf) Foundation’s Chairperson Rauf Ersenal, Board Member Mehmet Gokcebag (Md Gaus Bag) and Religious Affairs Representative Shakir Alemdar accompanied Mufti Tulip Atalay.
Father Savvas is the Head Priest from the Orthodox Church in Albania and an aide of Greek Orthodox Church Archbishop Chrysostomos. In the ceremony he represented the Archbishop who was on his routine visit abroad. Only few tourists who happened to be around were curious onlookers.
Before the formal opening of the Mosque, Mufti Talip Atalay visited Bayraktar Mosque, Ömeriye Mosque, the Arab Mosque and Mosque Nöbethane in Greek-Cyprus. Nicosia Greek Mayor Constantinos Yorgacis accorded lunch to the guests.
Messages from Mosque
Standing in front of the Tahatkaly Mosque Father Savvas said to the press persons, “Through dialogue freedom of religion has been achieved. Church is aiming at free access to all religious monuments, their restoration and their use for the purpose they were built.”
Welcoming the Grand Mufti on behalf of Archbishop Chrysostomos he delivered his message of goodwill. Father Savvas also thanked the Swedish Embassy for facilitating dialogue process ‘for religious freedom in the both parts of Cyprus’. He said, they were working in cooperation with the religious authorities of the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus. Savvas also expressed gratitude to the Turkish Cypriot administration for ‘re-opening certain Orthodox churches on their side for the use of charities.’
Father said, “Greek Orthodox Church had from the start worked towards access to all our monuments, their restoration, their operation, their use for the purpose for which they were built.”
“There have been joint visits by representatives of the Church of Cyprus around Cyprus which led to some sites being singled out so that we can quietly support until a solution is reached and we can repair them all,” Father Savvas said
The Father said that through meetings between religious leaders, the Church is trying to form a simple programming mechanism which would make visits to the north easier and less time consuming.
He said the restoration of several places of worship of both religions has been achieved by EVKAF (Auqaf) and that there has been cooperation between EVKAF and the Cyprus Church for the restoration of monuments throughout the island.
Swedish ambassador Klas Gierow called the event as historical and said, “It was a concrete proof that confidence building is possible. There is still some way to go. The religious track and all the people involved have shown that we can work and continue to work and make continuous progress.”
He said “permanent peace in Cyprus would be an excellent example for the rest of the region.”
“Islam’s message of peace, along with the messages of peace of other faiths, will play an important part in this effort,” the Ambassador underlined.
Responding to the Father Savvas and Swedish Ambassador, Mufti Atalay said, “right now it is important that we are here and we can pray”. “Inshallah (with God’s will) we are going to offer our prayers in this Turkish quarter in this Mosque.”
He said, "It is so valuable to be present here as a sign of the hope that the pains will be healed one day and all will change for the better."
The Mufti hoped that through dialogue between two religious leaders goal of lasting peace will be achieved and that it will serve as a good example for the whole region.
"The two peoples, who lived for centuries during Othman era in peace, must find the ways to have a future together and this occasion is a first step towards that direction.” He said.
Peter Weiderud said, “Religion is a victim of the Cyprus conflict. But we can hope religion can be a mechanism for reconciliation, something that has not been attempted in Cyprus before now.”
Weiderud said that until 2009 there had been no contact between religious leaders for 46 years, there was no initiative aimed at facilitating contact between the two religious leaders. Now it is excellent that we are steering forward.
Rauf Ersenal, Chairman of Auqaf, said, “not only Turkish Cypriots suffered but all ethnic groups suffered.”
Referring to his own ordeal, he said, “He was born in the neighborhood of Tahtakale. But his family had to leave when he was only of 4 years.”
Mr. Ersenal disclosed that just three weeks ago the Armenian Monastery in the North Nicosia has been re-opened to perform religious rituals after 51 years.”
The Tahtakala Mosque took its name from one of 24 historic suburbs of Nicosia, where it is located in. Tahtakala is a corruption of the phrase ‘Taht-el-Kale’ (or ‘Tehat-e-Qila) which means “under the Castle” or “the lower part of the fortress”. Taht-el-kale had been traditionally one of the biggest mixed neighborhoods (Mahalla), but now the only sign of this coexistence is the small Mosque and the Koran School. In 1946 it has a population of 1,433 consisting of 902 Greek Cypriots, 518 Turkish Cypriots and 13 others. In 2011 it declined to 826 people only.
The Mosque was built in 1826 by the Ottoman Governor Es-Seyyid Mehmet Agha in the place of an older Mosque. There were also a small graveyard and a ‘Kora’n Mederse” for the minors, which had its first teacher appointed in 1594.
The Mosque is very small. The structure has three round arches in front and two at the sides. Three gothic arches support the wooden roof. On the left side stands the minaret. It was rebuilt in 1948 after cracks developed in original minaret in 1936. Windows are also arched. Exterior is well preserved.
The Mosque and the nearby school (Koran Medrese) has been restored by the Nicosia Master Plan, in collaboration with the Department of Antiquities in 2004,. The restoration of the Mosque has been supported by the Bi-communal Development Programme, funded by USAID and UNDP, implemented through UNOPS. The medrese restoration was funded by the Antiquities.
People of Cyprus lived together in peace for over three centuries under Turkish rule. Ethnic and communal strife began after Britain entered Cyprus under an agreement forced upon Othman Empire in 1878. Within 36 years Britain dumped the agreement and declared annexation of the territory in 1914. In 1924 Cyprus was declared a British Colony.
This was the era when Othman Empire was decaying. Europe thrust wars upon Turkey with the aim to disintegrate the Muslims Empire. Cyprus gained independence from British in 1960 after Greek and Turkish communities reach agreement on a constitution. Democratic Republic proved short lived after a coup d'état supported by the military junta in Greece against the Cypriot President Makarios and the subsequent intervention of the Turkish army. Despite numerous efforts to reunify the country, it remains divided since 1974.
Cyprus, the Iceland, of around 9 250 km² area, just 180 Km from Turkey, was under the rule of Othman Empire from 1571 to 1878. The Iceland has long been a crossing point between Europe, Asia and Africa and still has many traces of successive civilizations – Roman theatres and villas, Byzantine churches and monasteries, Crusader castles, Ottoman Mosques and pre-historic habitats.
The island’s main economic activities are tourism, clothing and craft exports and merchant shipping. Traditional crafts include embroidery, pottery and copper-work.