Published May 30, 2010
VATICAN CITY – VATICAN CITY (AP) — Pope Benedict XVI, often under fire for political missteps on foreign trips, is heading into a potential diplomatic storm when he visits Cyprus this week, a pilgrimage to a divided island that could anger Turkey and the rest of the Muslim world.
Divisions between Greeks and ethnic Turks, splits in the Orthodox Christian community, and concerns over damaged Christian and Muslim houses of worship will be come under scrutiny during Benedict's three-day trip starting Friday.
The visit will be a key test of whether the pope has found his diplomatic feet.
Other controversies arose from his remarks on a trip to Africa that condoms can make the continent's AIDS epidemic worse and his comments in Brazil that Latin America's native people wanted to become Christian even before Europe's conquerors arrived.
The Cyprus trip comes just days after the island's leaders — Greek Cypriot President Dimitris Christofias and the newly elected president of the breakaway Turkish Cypriots, Dervis Eroglu — resumed peace talks after a two-month pause.
U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has urged the rival leaders to ensure that the reunification talks do not fall apart, warning that time is working against them.
Cyprus police say that although they are aware of possible protests by some religious groups against the pope's trip, there have been no credible threats to his safety.
"We are continuing our planning regarding the pope's safety and all necessary measures will be taken to ensure that not even the slightest incident will take place," said police spokesman Michalis Katsounotos.
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 Turkey recognizes it and maintains 35,000 troops there.
Officially, the island's division is not on the pope's agenda. Benedict has no plans to visit northern Cyprus, said Vatican spokesman, the Rev. Federico Lombardi. He declined to anticipate what the pope might say on the issue.
Instead, the trip was designed around Cyprus' location as a bridge to the Middle East. Benedict will meet with leaders from Catholic churches in the region to draw up proposals for a major meeting of Middle Eastern bishops at the Vatican in October.
Still it will be hard to ignore Cypriot tensions, and the pope on Sunday appeared to anticipate that atmosphere when, during his remarks to pilgrims in St. Peter's Square, he asked for "prayers for the peace and prosperity of all the people of Cyprus."
The Cypriot ambassador to the Holy See, George F. Poulides, says Benedict will be staying at the Vatican Nunciature, located right on the so-called Green Line in Nicosia — the U.N.-patrolled buffer zone between bullet-pocked buildings and army sentry posts separating the ethnically divided communities.
"This is a historic trip, the first time a pope is visiting Cyprus," Poulides said.
But the Turkish Embassy to the Holy See said it regrets the pope will not visit the north, insisting he would be welcome there and saying it hopes Benedict won't ignore the Turkish community in his speeches. There is a tiny Catholic community with three churches in the north, the embassy said.
A government official in Ankara said Turkey would be watching the visit closely and may comment if there is indication of political support for the Greek Cypriots or any allusion to the alleged destruction of churches in the north.
During a 2006 Vatican audience, the late Cypriot President Tassos Papadopoulos gave the pope an album of photographs of destroyed churches in the north under the Turkish occupation and of others converted to restaurants, shops or other secular uses.
Reporters covering the meeting quoted Benedict as saying "such destruction (is) incredible."
The Turkish north has published a book showing the destruction of mosques, cemeteries and other signs of Turkish culture in the south. It is called, "Erasing the Past: Turkish Cypriot Culture and Religious Heritage under the control of the Greek Cypriot Administration."
There are also problems between Cypriot Catholics and Orthodox Christians, who are dominant in the south. Some hardline Orthodox clerics, who view the pope as a heretic, say Benedict should stay in Rome to avoid provoking the island's 800,000 Orthodox.
Benedict on Sunday said he was "making an apostolic journey to Cyprus, to meet and pray with the Catholic and Orthodox faithful there."
Doctrinal, theological and political differences caused the Orthodox and Catholic churches to formally split in the 11th century. Officials from both churches have been engaged in talks in recent years to heal "The Great Schism," but opposition to reconciliation still lingers.
Archbishop Chrysostomos II said such critics "can stay at home" if they don't like the papal visit, which most church leaders have welcomed.
To head off anti-pope groups from inflaming public opinion, the synod released a circular read out in churches assuring the faithful that no talks on sensitive religious matters will be held during the pope's visit.
Benedict is to hold an ecumenical prayer service shortly after arriving. He will also meet with the president and diplomatic corps as well as the island's small Maronite and Roman Catholic communities.
Associated Press writer Menalaos Hadjicostis contributed from Cyprus.