Cyprus Mail

Row over illegal church could drag on for years

The illegal church near Cape Greco

Promises have been received from the archbishopric regarding the illegal construction of a church in Ayia Napa, the interior minister said on Thursday.

Meanwhile, parties have called for investigation by the Legal Service and potentially escalating the matter with the European Court of Justice if transgressors are not held to strict account.

The minister’s statements come in the wake of revelations that the Bishopric of Famagusta began construction works on a church, now at an advanced stage, without securing any of the required permits – including that of an environmental assessment.

The immediately responsible authority, the municipality of Ayia Napa and its planning department, have stayed doggedly silent over the matter.

“The municipal authority, the only one with the power to act immediately [to demolish the illegal works] has been AWOL the entire time,” Interior Minister Constantinos Ioannou told state broadcaster CyBC.

The Famagusta planning authority for its part claimed ignorance of the illegal activity and issued an order for the works to stop several weeks ago.

In response, the Famagusta Bishopric initiated an appeals process, the ultimate resolution of which can drag on for years.

“If the church loses the appeal for an exemption, which it likely will, still [the planning department’s] only recourse is to take the matter up to the Supreme Court, which can take four or five years. The weakness is in the law,” Ioannou said.

However, he added, church superintendent Yiannos Charilaou had intervened in the spat to offer assurances on behalf of the archbishopric that, should the appeal be lost, the church would comply immediately with orders to demolish the illegal construction and restore the habitat in the Natura 2000 site -and foot the bill.

Additionally, instead of going to court, the bishop promised to accept an exchange of the plot in question with another of equal value, on state-owned land, Ioannou said.

It remains unclear to what degree the habitat, designated as an important one for several bird species, could in fact be restored to its untouched state. Deputy environmental department director Elena Stylianopoulou noted that it is extremely challenging to carry out a post-intervention environmental assessment and that any pre-existing fauna would have fled.

Greens MP Charalambos Theopemptou, for his part, noted that the eye-popping offences of proceeding in blatant disregard for domestic planning processes is one thing, but that the law regarding Natura 2000 areas may be a much more powerful tool to bring the church to justice.

“The European law for habitats protection is very strong and carries heavy fines if enacted,” Theopemptou said, adding a complaint could be filed by the environmental department through the ministry of agriculture.

“Proceeding with impunity in a Natura 2000 site and seeking to make amends after the fact, is something that cannot be tolerated,” the Greens MP said.

In an official statement the party noted that the church was not above the law and blamed the latest in a string of church scandals on governments consistently turning a blind eye on offences for the past ten years.

“This mindset of ignoring laws […] and interfering in areas of ecological value […] must end. The church has no more rights than other citizens [and] the state has an obligation to ensure implementation of the law,” the party said.

The statement recalled the illegal constructions of a hotel in Yeroskipou, installation of a PV park in the forest of Flassou, demolition of historic buildings, and construction of the monastery of Osiou Avakoum.

Ioannou for his part, was at pains to emphasise that this ministry is different and has no intention of cozying up to church authorities.

“This ministry does not have ‘good relations’ with the church and this type of illegality will not be accepted by us,” the minister said.

Elsewhere, opposition party Akel requested on Thursday that the matter be brought up for independent investigation by the state’s legal services.

“The environment committee has approved the registration of the issue proposed by Akel and will proceed with its discussion before the closing of parliament for Easter,” the party stated.







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