Fourteen per cent of the island’s territory belonged to the Turkish religious foundation Evkaf before 1878, when it became a British protectorate, an official said on Thursday, announcing the launch of a legal campaign to claim the land.
Evkaf director Ibrahim Benter said that a recent search discovered that the number of properties belonging to the foundation was 2,200 and not 608 as it was widely thought. The properties include mosques, schools, water sources, etc.
It followed a search of 2,443 registries and eight million documents, Benter said.
He said their aim was to claim the foundation’s properties across the island.
“A legal procedure will be launched in Cyprus and international courts,” he was quoted as saying by the Cyprus News Agency.
Benter added that the documents in their possession would also be useful at the negotiating table.
Evkaf claims that the majority of properties in Varosha, Famagusta, belonged to the foundation.
It says that properties had been unlawfully expropriated by the British.
Evkaf is the umbrella organisation that oversees the running of all Turkish Cypriot religious foundations in Cyprus and is said to own vast amounts of land and property.
Late Turkish Cypriot leader Rauf Denktash claimed over a decade ago that 70 to 80 per cent of Varosha is Vakif land, which had been illegally sold in the past or given away to the Church of Cyprus without the approval of Evkaf.
During the Ottoman period, religious foundations or endowments called Vakif — the plural of which is Evkaf — were set up in the newly created areas of the Ottoman empire to support religious, cultural, and social activities.
The Turkish Cypriot side has voiced the same claim numerous times over the years.
The Ottomans ruled the island for over 300 years from 1571 until 1878, when they ceded Cyprus to Britain in return for protection against Russia.
When Turkey sided with Germany in World War I, Britain annexed the island and declared a Crown colony in 1925.
When the issue re-emerged in 2008, human rights lawyer Achilleas Demetriades described it as the “Evkaf approach” which was nothing new.
It had already been used by Turkish lawyers, he said, during a case at the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) in which his Greek Cypriot client Myra Xenides-Arestis had sought to regain possession of her property from Turkey in the fenced-off area of Varosha, near Famagusta.
The Evkaf approach, however, “was dismissed by the court,” Demetriades said. Turkey was ordered to pay Arestis €850,000 in compensation for denying her access to her property.
The Greek Cypriot lawyer added, however, that if there was basis to the Evkaf argument, its claims “do not lie against the Greek Cypriot owners but perhaps against the colonial powers, namely the UK”.
Prior to gaining independence from Britain, Demetriades said, “Britian paid over one million pounds to the Turkish Cypriot community [their leaders] in full and final settlement of all claims that the Turkish Cypriot community may have had to [Vakif] properties”.
He added that a possible use of the archival information would be for Turkey to open an interstate case against the UK for having illegally disenfranchised the Turkish Cypriots of large amounts of public property.