HRWF (13.11.2017) – On 9-10 November, the Conference of European Churches (KEK-CEC) held a conference on the protection of places of worship and holy sites in Nicosia (Cyprus) under the auspices of His Beatitude, Archbishop Chrysostomos II of Nova Justitiana and Cyprus. At the end of the event, the participants adopted a number of recommendations.

Protection of Holy Sites and Worship Places in Europe and the Middle East

KEK-CEC (13.11.2017) – In the run up to the European Year of Cultural Heritage 2018, European churches are urging the European institutions to increase their efforts to ensure respect and protection of places of worship and holy sites, both in the EU law and in the Common Foreign and Security Policy.

These church leaders were participants of a conference organised by the Conference or European Churches and the Church of Cyprus, in Nicosia, Cyprus, from 9-10 November.

The forty participants of the conference emphasised that several gaps in the international legal regime, governing such sites, need to be filled, in particular a common definition and legal remedies. To buy, build, own, maintain, restore and use such religious places are part and parcel of the fundamental right to Freedom of Religion or Belief, they said.

The conference explored different legal, political and cultural contexts of the theme. This included Western Europe, with its increasingly secular setting, as well as regions where religious sites have been politicized in conflict situations, such as in Kosovo (UNSCR 1244/1999), in the divided Cyprus, in Ukraine, in Syria and in the City of Jerusalem, which holds special significance to Jews, Christians and Muslims alike.

For Cyprus, His Beatitude Archbishop Chrysostomos II of Nova Justiniana and All Cyprus spoke about the need of de facto protection of the churches in Cyprus. Religious monuments in the country are not under the effective control of the Republic of Cyprus and are often vandalized with the Turkish Cypriot side doing little to prevent that. Legal owners are also often denied access to and prevented from worshiping at their holy sites. “Using the right of access to places of worship for political ends is not conducive to dialogue,” said Cyprus’ Foreign Minister Ioannis Kasoulides.

Speaking about the Holy Land, His Beatitude Theophilos III, Patriarch of Jerusalem and all Palestine, said that over the last several months, a new level of threat has emerged to the stability of Jerusalem as a multi-ethnic, multi-cultural and multi-religious society of which the diverse holy sites are concrete evidence, and that the churches have become increasingly concerned about their properties.

For Syria, Bishop Armash Nalbandian, Primate of the Armenian Diocese of Damascus, talked about the great suffering his community that has lived through during the civil war. He emphasized the desire to return the country to relative harmony between different faiths that existed before the conflict.

Fr Sava Janjic, Abbot of Dečani Monastery in Kosovo (UNSCR 1244/1999), demanded that “political leaders in the Balkans should demonstrate more commitment to the protection of cultural and religious heritage of vulnerable communities and make more efforts to prevent further destruction of holy sites”.

The moderator of CEC Thematic Reference Group on Human Rights, Rev. Dr Göran Gunner, stated that “the destruction of a place of worship often deeply affects the identity of a religious person, who wants the site to be preserved for the present and future generations with dignity, integrity and respect.”


Communiqué on the legal status und protection of ‘places of worship’ and ‘holy sites’



The participants,


  • welcoming recent developments[i]indicating an increased public awareness of the importance of ‘places of worship’ and ‘holy sites’ as an integral part[ii] of Freedom of Religion or Belief[iii] as well as of their relevance for the common cultural heritage of humanity,

  • aware that such sites form an integral part of the fibre constituting individual personality and historic and cultural identity of peoples, wherefore their proper maintenance and use contributes to cohesion, whereas their desecration or destruction can cause severe trauma,

  • asserting that the relevance of sites with a religious or spiritual character cannot be reduced to their historic, artistic or cultural significance, but are part of the living memory and testimony of faith,

  • repenting the failure of Christians in our common history to respect and protect religious sites of other believers,

  • calling on solidarity with Christians and other believers suffering from intolerance, conflict and war that eventually causes damage to such sites,

  • and deeply concerned that many sites of religious or spiritual as well as of historic and cultural significance have over the past decades become again focal points of violence and intolerance and/or suffered from hostile acts, especially but not exclusively in conflicts and wars, both from states and from third parties,


1.)    emphasise that any building (including, inter alia, churches, chapels, monasteries, synagogues, temples and mosques) or site (including, inter alia, monuments, cemeteries, routes of pilgrimage) should be regarded as a place of worship or a holy site,

  • if a religious community can legitimately claim either the right of property or otherwise the right to use of that site for religious rites or similar expressions or manifestations of religion, individually and collectively, and

  • if it has been specifically dedicated to such a purpose,

    • or has been traditionally used for such a purpose over a significant period of time,

    • or has a specific religious or spiritual meaning attached to it for one or more religious communities without prejudice to the property rights of others.


2.)   urge for a strong and effective protection of such sites in national as well as in international law from illegitimate interferences, such as the denial of access, the obstruction of religious ceremonies, damage, plundering and trafficking of artefacts, and destruction, both from a state and/or from third parties, giving special attention also to the prohibition of unlawful, disproportionate, discriminatory or otherwise unjust dispossession.


3.)    call on all Members of the Conference of European Churches as well as on all other Churches and communities of religion or belief in Europe and the Middle East

  • to seek, in the spirit of peace and reconciliation, a common understanding especially in the handling of such sites that are of religious or spiritual significance to more than one denomination or religion,

  • to engage in dialogue on how religious actors can together raise political awareness for their importance while forestalling a politicisation of religious sites in conflicts,

  • to join in common action to defend each other’s rights, with a special view to minorities.


4.) expect the European Institutions and the Member States of the European Union, in cooperation with other international actors[iv],

  • to use the upcoming ‘European Year of Cultural Heritage’ (2018) to increase their efforts to ensure respect and protection for ‘places of worship’ and ‘holy sites’, both in EU law and in the Common Foreign and Security Policy;

  • to work towards a comprehensive international regime of legal protection, building on a better understanding of the fundamental right to Freedom of Religion or Belief, and including a common definition of such places and sites as well as legal remedies to ensure proper implementation. In particular, religious communities must be able to acquire or built, own and administer, maintain or restore, access and use such places.


For more information or an interview, please contact:

Henrik Hansson

CEC Communication Coordinator

Tel: +32 2 234 68 42

Twitter: @ceceurope

The Conference of European Churches (CEC) is a fellowship of some 114 Orthodox, Protestant, Anglican and Old Catholic Churches from all countries of Europe, plus 40 National Councils of Churches and Organisations in Partnership. CEC was founded in 1959. It has offices in Brussels and Strasbourg.


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