by Edward Pentin | May 14, 2010
Nicosia: An entrance to the buffer zone which splits Greek and Turkish areas of the Cypriot capital. (photo G. Sandionigi)
As Cyprus prepares for the visit of Pope Benedict XVI on June 4-6, the country’s ambassador to the Holy See, George Poulides, speaks to Terrasanta.net about his government’s hopes for the visit and the intense preparations that are taking place. In particular, he believes the Pope’s mere presence will act as a “vigorous protest” against the Turkish occupation of the north of the country, and he discusses how Cyprus is once again a focal point for improved Christian-Muslim relations in the Middle East.
Mr Ambassador, what are the hopes of the Republic of Cyprus government for the visit?
The government of Cyprus considers the visit of Pope Benedict XVI as an important act of friendship of the Pontiff toward the people of Cyprus. The Pontiff accepted the invitation to visit the island, addressed by the President of the Republic of Cyprus Demetris Christofias, as well as the Archbishop Chrysostomos II, during their visit in Vatican. I think what is evident for this visit is that the Pope Benedict XVI wishes to send a sign of peace and justice toward the people of Cyprus and a message of sympathy and support for the efforts of the government of the Republic of Cyprus in favor of the reunification of the island and the termination of the Turkish military occupation of nearly 37% of its territory. All these years, following the Turkish invasion of 1974, the Holy See and all succeeding Pontiffs have indeed been noble defenders of international law, always calling, with great coherence, for the application of the numerous resolutions of the United Nations which condemn the Turkish intervention.
I feel, moreover, that the visit of the Pontiff has a pastoral meaning as well. In Cyprus there are two small but important Catholic communities: the Latin-Rite Catholics and the Maronites, each of them with a right to a seat in the House of the Representatives (Parliament). Nevertheless, in Cyprus there is a significant Orthodox majority, that is represented by the Church of Cyprus. The Church of Cyprus not only participates actively in ecumenical dialogue with the Catholic Church but also last year hosted the Joint Theological Commission which deals with the crucial issue of Christian unity: the primacy of the Bishop of Rome. Thus, the visit of the Pope affirms the great importance of the Church of Cyprus’s contribution to dialogue with Catholics. Finally, there is a third element. In Cyprus, the Pontiff will consign to the bishops and the Catholic churches of the Middle East the Instrumentum Laboris of the Synod for the Middle East that will take place in the autumn. Accordingly, Cyprus will be again the focal point of Christian efforts in favour of peace in the tormented region of Middle East. It concerns an event of great importance, as it will not strictly be about political issues, but also the crucial question of the relations between Christians - as a whole - and Muslims, wherever the latter compose the majority of the population.
How important are relations with the Holy See to Cyprus, particularly in view of the fact that the country has Communist leadership?
I cannot see how President Christofias, as the leader of AKEL, the biggest left-wing party in Cyprus, could negatively influence the excellent relations established between Cyprus and the Holy See. The President declares himself a believer, but even if he wasn’t, I can assure you that the relations with Vatican would still been excellent. Generally, in the Orthodox world there is not an anticlerical tradition, and particularly in Cyprus it could be said that it does not exist at all. On the contrary! I shall remind you that the first President after the Independence of country, Archbishop Makarios III, was also the head of the Church of Cyprus, and considered by everyone as «Ethnarch», the national leader. Makarios was strongly supported by the AKEL and the other left-wing factions. And all this happened because for many centuries, especially during the Ottoman domination of the island, the Church of Cyprus assumed a prominent influence in political and social affairs, gaining moreover the respect of those that belong to different faiths, as well as those without faith. In Cyprus there is full respect toward all the Churches and all religions. Thirty years after the Turkish invasion, I invite you to visit the mosques located in the free territory of Cyprus: all have been restored with care and kept in perfect condition for their faithful, both Turkish-Cypriots and Muslim immigrants. All this is in contrast with what is happening on the occupied territories, where the churches and the monasteries have been looted, destroyed or transformed into stables, hotels and storehouses – a destruction that has been denounced in several occasions by the Catholic Church.
How confident are you that his visit will help bring peace with northern Cyprus?
The moral influence of Pope is massive. The Pontiff brings a message of peace and justice that travels beyond the Christian world. Even his mere presence on this wounded island constitutes a vigorous protest against the injustice and the violence that the Cypriot people have undergone, namely the Turkish occupation. The Catholic Church knows well: the Maronite community suffers because of the Turkish occupation as much as the other Christians. The populations of the Maronite villages located on the occupied areas face oppression and threats every day so that they will leave their homes, just as they forced hundreds of thousands Christians and Greek-Cypriots before them. However, the peace message of the Pontiff is not only addressed to the Christians of Cyprus. It might seem strange, but a large part of the Turkish-Cypriot community is also waiting for this visit with great attention. You see, this doesn’t get discussed often, but the truth is that very few Turkish Cypriots remain in the occupied territories [in the north]. The majority of the current population are settlers, illegally transferred from Anatolia, or they are Turkish soldiers. An atmosphere of violence and abuse of power prevails. We also witnessed terrorist homicides of undesirable Turkish- Cypriots journalists. It’s said that as a result many Turkish-Cypriots “voted to flee”, they ran away, mostly by immigrating to Great Britain. That’s why they look upon the visit of the Pontiff with the hope that Ankara will leave them free to decide for their future.
What preparations are taking place for the visit?
The preparations have reached fever pitch. Both the Government, the Orthodox Church and the Catholic community are working non-stop for this important occasion. Not only is the vast mobilization of all Cypriots expected, but also the dynamic flow of hundreds of journalists from every part of the world. In addition, many of the faithful will arrive from neighboring countries in the Middle East, together with their Bishops. Everyone will have the occasion to see the Pontiff up close and listen to his words. Apparently, the security measures will be particularly severe with all the security forces of Cyprus on alert.