Cyprus churches pray for elusive unity of Mediterranean island

(Photo: REUTERS / Neil Hall)A sign marking the boundary of the United Nations buffer zone stands in the village of Pyla in Cyprus March 11, 2014.

The (Orthodox) Church of Cyprus wants unity for its divided island, together with other churches in the country, but it sees that first wounds caused by Turkish invasion 40 years ago must be healed.

Participants in the World Council of Churches executive committee meeting have prayed in the Aghios Georgios Exorinos Church, Famagusta, in the Turkish-held region of Cyprus.

They prayed that by taking steps towards removing the border, the division of their island might be eliminated.

The prayer, on November 23, was led by Metropolitan Vasilios, spiritual head of the diocese of Constantia an Ammochostos in Cyprus.

Vasilios lost a number of people close to him during the Turkish invasion of Cyprus in 1974.

Yet his hope for a peaceful, united island for both Greek Cypriots and Turkish Cypriots, along with other communities, continues to thrive, the WCC said in a statement on November 24.

The aspirations of Vasilios resonate with the theme "pilgrimage of justice and peace," the call issued by the WCC's highest governing body, its 10th Assembly in Busan, South Korea in 2013, the statement said.

Cyprus is an island divided for 40 years now and was called "a station for the pilgrimage of justice and peace" by WCC general secretary Rev. Olav Fykse Tveit.

Since the Turkish invasion of Cyprus in 1974 partitioned the island, the northern third has been inhabited by Turkish Cypriots and the southern two-thirds by Greek Cypriots.

United Nations peacekeeping forces estimate around 165,000 Greek Cypriots fled from the north to the south at the time of the invasion, and 45,000 Turkish Cypriots from the south to the north.

The Turkish invasion caused massive destruction, with 6,000 soldiers and civilians killed (two percent of the male population in 1974).

Another 1,619 men and women, of whom 1,536 were Greek Cypriots and 83 Greeks, never returned home and were recorded as missing.

Since 1983 the Turkish-held area has declared itself the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus, recognized only by Turkey, which keeps more than 30,000 troops in the north of the island.

The separation of the island caused profound distress to Vasilios, who spent his youth in the area now held by Turkey.

Crossing the border every time he wants to attend church events is something he has still not become used to.

"As bishop of the Church of Cyprus, I get to attend several church celebrations in northern Cyprus. Being told this part of the island is not my home and I need permission to enter is the most painful experience for me," Vasilios said.


Vasilios explained that the cultural and religious heritage of Cyprus was damaged as a consequence of the Turkish invasion.

(Photo: © WCC / Charis Vrahimis)Metropolitan Vasilios outside a monastery in the Turkish-held region of Cyprus.

This destruction, he says, included damage of archaeological sites, monasteries, ancient churches, cemeteries and important monuments.

"These worship places are extremely precious to the people of faith, as their life events are marked in these places," he said. Over 500 churches in the occupied area are known to have been desecrated, along with sacred images, frescoes and mosaics.

"The healing of the wounds is not easy," says Vasilios. "In any family in Cyprus it is possible to find wounds caused during the Turkish invasion period."

He noted, "We know people who have gone missing, we know people who were killed. I have lost five family members, including an uncle and cousins. Therefore, I must repeat that taking steps towards reconciliation is not easy. Yet we must do it.

"We must work towards reconciliation, peace and justice for the sake of unity of our country."

Vasilios said that "real actions" are needed to pave the way towards a political solution.

Yet, both sides have failed to find a solution.

He said the first step towards dissolving the border is to rebuild relations among ordinary people, he said.

To strengthen these relationships, religious leaders must help create an environment that promotes the unity of Cypriots.

The wish for reunification of Cyprus is reflected in church celebrations, such as that in the Aghios Georgios Exorinos Church on Sunday, attended by Greek Cypriots and supported by Turkish Cypriots.

The Church of Cyprus, a member church of the WCC has joined other churches in the country in its plea for unity.

Vasilios is hosting the meeting of the WCC executive committee in Paralimni, Cyprus, from November 20-26.

He is member of the WCC main governing body, its central committee, and former moderator of the WCC's Faith and Order Commission.

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