Cyprus imam revives island's historic Islamic sites

Larnaca (Cyprus) (AFP) –


Like the pink flamingos that winter on the salt lake nearby, most worshippers at the Hala Sultan Tekke mosque in Cyprus have travelled from afar.

The fact they are praying at the pilgrimage site at all is largely thanks to Shakir Alemdar, a Cypriot imam determined to revive key Islamic places of worship on the divided Mediterranean island.

"For the Turkish Cypriots, this place has great meaning," he told AFP. "Everyone has a love for this place."

The cheerful 51-year-old grew up in the capital Nicosia and recalls visiting the most holy Islamic site in Cyprus, near the southeastern city of Larnaca, as a child.

But shortly afterwards, in 1974, an Athens-backed coup aimed at unification with Greece sparked a Turkish invasion of the northern third of the island.

Greek Cypriots, mostly Orthodox Christians, fled south.

Majority-Muslim Turkish Cypriots took refuge in the north, which later broke away as the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus, recognised only by Ankara.

The division cut off congregations on both sides from hundreds of key religious sites, including the Saint Barnabas monastery in the north and Hala Sultan Tekke in the south.

The mosque, built in the 18th century on the site of a tomb believed to belong to Umm Haram -- Hala Sultan in Turkish, a female companion of the Prophet Mohammed -- had long been the centre of Islamic life in Cyprus.

But it was not until 2003 that crossings resumed between north and south, following United Nations-backed talks.

And only in 2008 did Alemdar return to Hala Sultan, after moving from London back to Cyprus.

He found the complex had been restored as a museum, its original purpose as a place of worship consigned to the past.

"They were advertising it as a tourist attraction," he said.

"Ok, it's a nice place to see -- for me it's the nicest place to see (in Cyprus) -- but the emphasis that this is a place of worship was ignored."

- 'We're not fossils' -

As a representative of the Mufti of Cyprus, Alemdar has made it his life's work to restore services to Hala Sultan Tekke and other abandoned mosques, patiently winning over Greek Cypriot bureaucrats.

"Turkish Cypriots are alive and we're not fossils," he recalls telling one official.

Cyprus joined the European Union in 2004, but Alemdar says Turkish-speaking Cypriots have been unable to claim their full rights as EU citizens because most of them live in an unrecognised breakaway territory.

"We are part of this island life for the past 500 years," Alemdar said. "We are not outsiders."

Alemdar himself lives in southern Nicosia.

Today, of 100 mosques on the island in areas controlled by the Republic of Cyprus, Alemdar said "only eight are operational and (Islamic religious authorities) are only administering half of them because of political issues".

Hala Sultan Tekke is managed by the antiquities department, something Alemdar says is an infringement on religious freedoms guaranteed by the European Union.

The mosque is only open for two of the five daily prayer times, though dispensation is given to keep the mosque open at night during the holy month of Ramadan.

Alemdar is also locked into bureaucratic battles over other mosques on the island, fighting to install new plumbing for ablutions in one historic building and demanding a voice in a redevelopment plan for a mosque complex in another municipality.

"This is my struggle," he said.

Despite ongoing political differences between the Republic of Cyprus and the breakaway north, with reunification talks stalled, Alemdar maintains that the island remains an example of mutual religious respect.

"This is a great advantage for an EU member country, Cyprus has this insight about Islam," he said.

One recent Friday, before anti-coronavirus measures closed all tourist sites and cancelled services, worshippers arrived at Hala Sultan Tekke via a palm-flanked causeway across the salt lake.

Most had travelled by coach from northern Cyprus, crossing the ceasefire line that has divided the island since 1974.

Alemdar delivered his sermon in Turkish and English, his booming voice expounding on the mysteries of creation in one sentence and railing against climate change in the next.

As groups of selfie stick-wielding tourists wandered the complex, Turkish Cypriots prayed alongside a group of Uzbek men on a work trip and a holidaying British Bangladeshi family.

"People find this peace and serenity here," Alemdar said afterwards.

"It's a unique place, and that's a gift for all Cypriots."