Book review: When the Cemetery Becomes Political. Dealing with the Religious Heritage in Multi-Ethic Regions.

Book review: When the Cemetery Becomes Political. Dealing with the Religious Heritage in Multi-Ethic Regions.

Safeguarding and conservation of religious heritage in a diverse Europe comes with several challenges. These range from legal issues to the difficulties related to museumification, and from the destruction of religious heritage sites to the reuse of them. The greatest challenge of all, however, appears to be the tolerant coexistence of different faith communities. The book ‘When the Cemetery Becomes Political. Dealing with the Religious Heritage in Multi-Ethnic Regions’ published in Münster last year and edited by Thorsten Kruse, Hubert Faustmann and Sabine Rogge, provides an insight into these challenges. The central question the different authors investigate is why a group destroys or desecrates sacred places such as places of worship and cemeteries of another group. Formulating an answer reveals complex, perhaps even contradictory, discourses and intricate interactions between the religious and the political. The geographical focus of the book is the eastern Mediterranean, however, the factual topics transcend national borders. It begins with the Srebrenica massacre, a dark chapter in recent European history, and ends with a section devoted to reconciliation. The book is divided into four sections, each covering one country. Of these, the section dealing with Cyprus is the most extensive.

In the first section, Seljana Tunic deals with the meaning of bones in the context of the Srebrenica massacre in Bosnia and Herzegovina.  The article elaborates on the different meanings bones in a post-conflict situation can have. The second section of the book is devoted to Cyprus. Theodosios Tsivolas reflects on the complex and diverse issue of the legal status of religious heritage on this divided island. Religious heritage goes beyond the material and abandoned places of worship will decay eventually becoming ruins. Tsivolas displays the many challenges of safeguarding religious heritage in international law. Thorsten Kruse discusses the fate of the religious heritage of Cyprus in the reports of international organisations. The division of the island had far-reaching repercussions for its religious heritage. International heritage organisations and others can draft urgent reports, however, it remains challenging to put these into practice. Kruse concludes this insightful paper with recommendations that are not only useful for the Cypriot case, but for many other regions as well. Petros Savvides tackles the issue of Islamization of occupied Cyprus. This includes the conversion of churches, construction of minarets dominating the landscape and the construction of ottoman style mosques. Traditionally, however, the Turkish Cypriots were not only a minority but also among the most secular Muslim communities. The presence of Islamic sacred architecture does not reflect the religious needs of the locals. Savvides further argues the construction of Turkish style mosques, and especially the minarets is part of a strategy of de-Hellenization and de-Christianization. However, the reuse of abandoned orthodox churches should be preferred over a process of decay. The next paper continues on the topic of the restoration of religious heritage. Lisa Dikomitis and Vassos Argyrou investigate the politics of restoring sacred sites in northern Cyprus. The section about Cyprus comes to a provoking culmination with the contribution by Theopisti Stylianou-Lambert and Alexandra Bounia. It challenges the reader to contemplate if a museum about religious artefacts, housed in a former place of worship, can be a place of living heritage. A museum of religious art traditionally contextualizes or de-contextualizes sacred objects. More recently, the museum has been a place of dialogue where there is a space for interpretation from the diversity background. Many religious buildings, conversely, are visited by tourists as if they were museums and not living places of worship. The idea that a museum can be a living place of worship at the same time remains problematic. In the third section, Leon Saltiel discusses the dismantling of the old Jewish cemetery in Thessaloniki. Testimony of an ancient Jewish presence in this Greek city going back centuries, this religious heritage site was destroyed during the twentieth century. Saltiel goes into detail about the distressing past of this destruction of Jewish heritage, providing an insight into the processes and actors involved. Photos of gravestones used for paving are shocking. A recent monument dedicated to this terrible destruction of religious heritage can be seen as a hopeful stage towards reconciliation. The final section is an excursion to Lebanon, a place that, according to Ziad Fahed, celebrates diversity. Historically this region has a long tradition of religious diversity, its location and mountainous region offered refuge for religious minorities for centuries. Elie Al Hindy investigates the problems of this religious pluralism but also explores solutions. Transforming diversity and peaceful coexistence from an idea into reality can be challenging. To achieve this, Al Hindy argues for a pilgrimage towards the other. Ziad Fahed discusses the problem and the response to the coexistence of different religious groups in Lebanon. A path to reconciliation or a way for peaceful coexistence. Dima de Clerck concludes the book with an insight into modern martyrhood in southern Mount Lebanon. The collective recognition and commemoration of both Christian and Druze minorities of the dead, fallen during war violence, can be a way to get closer together again. It can be a path to living together in diversity.

Beginning with discussing the different meanings bones can have in a post-conflict situation, as in Srebrenica, the book concludes with a path towards reconciliation and peaceful coexistence. The ten papers in this book provide insight into complexities and intricate interactions between the religious and the political in the eastern and north-eastern Mediterranean, regions where the coexistence of different religious communities has created challenges in the recent past. At the same time, the topics have validity in many regions where diversity and coexistence of religious groups have become a certainty. Religious heritage in today’s increasingly multi-ethnic and multi-faith society is complex, at times contradictory, and its safeguarding comes with many complications and challenges. Highly recommended read to gain a better understanding of the complex issue of religious heritage in a diverse Europe.

Thorsten Kruse, Hubert Faustmann and Sabine Rogge (eds), When the Cemetery Becomes Political. Dealing with the Religious Heritage in Multi-Ethic Regions. Waxmann Verlag GmbH 2020, Münster.

paperback,  with numerous illustrations, many of them in colour,  34,90 €,  ISBN 978-3-8309-4265-8

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