Pope Benedict travels to the island of Cyprus

It seems as Pope Benedict XVI gets older, just turning 83 in April, he is renewing his strength and vigor rather than slowing down. This past week saw him taking one of his more challenging and psychologically draining pastoral journeys as he traveled to the island of Cyprus. Cyprus history is one of political and religious strife, rancor and violence. With tensions high on both the political and religious fronts, Pope Benedict waded into the morass with deft diplomatic aplomb and a shepherd’s heart during his three day visit. Of course, as in all his pastoral trips his first concern is to bring encouragement to the Roman Catholic community, while reaching out in ecumenical and interreligious concern to the rest of the visited community.

Cyprus was ethnically split in 1974 when Turkey invaded after a coup by supporters of union with Greece. Turkish Cypriots declared an independent republic in the north in 1983 but only the country of Turkey recognizes it and it maintains 35,000 troops there. Besides the problems between Turks and Greeks are the religious tensions between Muslims and Christians and the tensions among Orthodox and Roman Catholic Christians in Cyprus. Unfortunately the Holy Father was confronted by these divisions prior to and during his trip.

Even before his trip, some Orthodox groups in Cyprus voiced their opposition to his visit. Some of the local Orthodox bishops, even some members of the highest governing board of bishops known as the Holy Synod, voiced their resistance to any talk of reunion among Catholics and Orthodox. Some of these bishops threatened to boycott the welcoming ceremonies for the pope. Bishop Athanasios of Limassol went so far as to call the pope a “heretic.” Athanasios was once seriously considered for the post of leader of the Orthodox Church in Cyprus. Archbishop Chrysostomos II, head of the Orthodox Church in Cyprus demanded that the bishops and faithful should show respect for the Holy Father and assured them that sensitive religious matters, especially healing the “Great Schism” would be held during the trip.

Upon his arrival at the welcoming ceremony, Archbishop Chrysostomos began a blistering attack on Turkey for its occupation of Northern Cyprus and treatment of Christians in general. He said, “Turkey has barbarously invaded and conquered by force of arms 37 percent of our homeland.” He added that Turkey “continues to carry out its obscure plans which include the annexation of the land now under military occupation, and then a conquest of the whole of Cyprus.” The archbishop explained to the pope that Turks “ruthlessly sacked” Christian churches, artwork and culture in the north. The next day President Dimitris Christofias added to the archbishop’s attack and called on the pope and the international community to put its larger geopolitical interests aside and pressure Turkey to reach an accord reunifying Cyprus.

Pope Benedict did not respond directly to the archbishop or the president. The pope’s spokesman, Father Federico Lombardi explained that while the Holy Father was aware of the archbishop’s views he had not come to Cyprus to take political positions. There were never any plans for the pope to visit the north of the island, but the Vatican explained that the pope was eager to meet with Muslim representatives. When meeting with the Catholic community, Pope Benedict explained, “Only by patient work can mutual trust be built, the burden of history overcome, and the political and cultural differences between peoples become a motive to work for deeper understanding.”

The main reason that Pope Benedict chose to accept the invitation to Cyprus was to use the opportunity to meet with bishops from the region to set an agenda for an October meeting in Rome to build a strategy to lessen the great exodus of Christians from the Middle East. He unveiled the working document, or instrumentum laboris, for the synod that will take place in October. I will report on this document in my next column. The pope’s visit was a great success. He was not drawn into the political and religious tug of war in Cyprus but he used this tension as a great historic backdrop for the theme of the upcoming synod that will address many of the problems epitomized by life in Cyprus for Christians in the Middle East.

Categories: That All May Be One

About Author