Menu

Religion

Pope's visit stirs hopes of ancient sect hurt by Cyprus division and fearing assimiliation

KORMAKITIS, Cyprus (AP) — In the coffee shop at this farming village on the northern Cyprus coast, the conversation jumps from one hardship to the next: a bad rainy season, a religion weakened by assimilation, and a division of the island that has lasted 36 years with no end in sight.

For Cyprus' Maronites, followers of one of the oldest Catholic faiths, the best news of late has been the announcement that Pope Benedict XVI is coming to Cyprus next week — the first pontiff to visit the island.

Kormakitis is one of four northern villages that were once the center of Cyprus' Maronite population. Then, in 1974, came a coup, a war and a fence that split the Mediterranean island into a Turkish Cypriot north and a Greek Cypriot south.

Most of the Maronites were forced to head south, and Kormakitis today has just 130 people, most of them old-age pensioners.

Joseph Katsioloudis, a retired 63-year-old headmaster, echoes the fear of many Maronites that with the latest round of reunification talks having produced no visible breakthrough, they will not live to see their island and community reunited.

"Without a Cyprus settlement, we're lost — 100 percent," he says, sitting in the coffee shop while his friend, 70-year-old farmer and lay cantor named Ioannis Tsioutzoukis, introduces a visitor to Maronite ways by chanting a prayer in Arabic.

In St. George's Cathedral opposite the coffee shop, Sunday services shift easily between three languages — Greek, Arabic and Aramaic, the language Jesus spoke. That, plus Cyprus Maronite Arabic (CMA), the community's distinctive Aramaic-laced local dialect, attests to roots dating back centuries to the Maronites' origins in Lebanon and Syria.

Maronite Archbishop Youssef Soueif says, "we are keeping these traditions from very old times and we want to keep them because it's a richness, a spirituality not only for Cyprus, but for the whole world."

But modern history has been the Maronites' calamity, living on a small island where tensions between Greek and Turkish Cypriots exploded in 1974 into a coup by supporters of union with Greece, a Turkish invasion that resulted in a breakaway north and an internationally recognized south, and the uprooting of thousands of Greek and Turkish Cypriots caught on the wrong side of the new dividing line.

The Maronite exodus left the people of Kormakitis feeling isolated in the Muslim-majority north and fearful for their society's future.

Island-wide, Maronites number just 6,000, many have married into the island's 800,000-strong Orthodox Greek Cypriot population. "This is leading to our disappearance," says Katsioloudis, the headmaster.

Marrying outside the community was once unthinkable; now four out of five do so, says Antonis Haji Roussos, the Maronite representative in the Cypriot legislature. His own son has married a non-Maronite.

Haji Roussos says the key to the Maronites' survival is their return to their ancestral lands and the development of a tourism industry like that which flourishes south of the fenced cease-fire line.

Benedict, on his June 4-6 visit, will not enter the Turkish Cypriot north, but Haji Roussos hopes the pope will appeal for a Turkish troop pullout from two Maronite villages that lost their populations and became military bases. That, he says, would open the doors to a Maronite return and revitalize the group's culture and language.

Meanwhile, the Greek Cypriot government gives those who stayed in the north pensions of 550 euros ($670) a month per couple and around 350 euros ($430) for an individual. It pays instructors to teach CMA, and funds weeklong summer visits by young Maronites to put them in touch with their communal roots.

"CMA speakers are very conscious of the Aramaic elements in their language which they rightly interpret as a historical link with the Aramaic-speaking Christian world," says language expert Alexander Borg of Israel's Ben-Gurion University of the Negev.

A measure of detente has set in since 2003, when crossings were opened through the fences. Hundreds of thousands have crossed both ways on visits, and the Maronites of Kormakitis will have no trouble making the 40-kilometer (25-mile) journey to welcome the pope and celebrate Mass with him.

Turkey says a troop withdrawal depends on whether the two sides can negotiate an overall peace.

But Haji Roussos, the representative in parliament, hopes the Turks will take detente a step further by letting Maronites, especially younger ones, settle in the villages now held by the army.

"We're a small community, we can't change the course of things, we seek help from officials...who can influence, so we can tell the Turks, 'look, they're a small community, leave their villages to them so they can survive as a community,'" Haji Roussos says.

He sees possibilities of tourism to Kormakitis' beaches and the other villages, and says Lebanese Maronite investors are interested.

"Our vision is to create such an environment that it will attract the young Maronites to their roots," he says.

Meanwhile, the cathedral still draws scores of faithful every Sunday, and has just inaugurated a small adjoining sanctuary to house ancient religious icons.

___

On the Net:

www.papalvisit.org.cy