Religion helps heal Cyprus’ ethnic division as Muslim, Christian leaders wage quiet diplomacy

FAMAGUSTA, Cyprus – An unexpected moment during the Good Friday service in a long-abandoned church in Cyprus’ breakaway north illustrated how religion is helping to bring together Christian Greek Cypriots and Muslim Turkish Cypriots on this ethnically divided island.

It came when Turkish Cypriot Umit Inatci handed the key of the church of Agios Georgios Exorinos in the medieval center of Famagusta to the city’s Greek Orthodox Metropolitan Vasilios, saying: “This is not gift, it’s something that is surrendered to its owner.”

Rapturous applause greeted the announcement by Inatci, who helped make possible the first Holy Week service at the 14th-century church in nearly 60 years.

Among the hundreds of faithful there was Mikis Lakatamitis, who was baptized at the church eight decades ago. Tears welled up in his eyes as worshippers lined up nearby to kiss an embroidered cloth depicting Christ’s preparation for burial.

“I want to live in this moment because I don’t know if I’ll relive it again,” said Lakatamitis, whose family abandoned their nearby home at the start of ethnic strife in the late 1950s.

Cyprus was divided along ethnic lines in 1974 into a Greek Cypriot south and Turkish Cypriot north after Turkey invaded following a coup aiming to unite the island with Greece.

For decades, there was no contact between the religious leaders of the two communities. In the north, about 500 churches and monasteries — many hundreds of years old — were left to ruin, looted or converted for other uses. In the south, only eight of about 110 mosques still operate.

But that changed in 2009 with a kind of faith-based diplomacy that has quietly been conducted between the leader of the island’s Greek Orthodox Christian Church Archbishop Chrysostomos II and Turkish Cypriot Muslim Grand Mufti Talip Atalay.

“We have to give a good example to the Middle East,” Atalay told The Associated Press. “This is our gift to the Middle East.”

The Good Friday service was the result of a grassroots initiative by ordinary Greek and Turkish Cypriots seeking to chip away at the wall of mistrust built up over decades.

“Perhaps we all understood that being constantly at odds with each other is getting us nowhere,” said Nikos Karoullas, a member of the citizens’ movement that spawned the initiative. Karoullas said Turkish Cypriots warmly embraced the idea of the church service. Abandoned since the late 1950s, the church was later used as a cultural center by a nearby university.

“This helps us to understand that we share the same country,” said 35-year-old Xenia Constantinou. Katerina Mina, whose parents hail from Famagusta, said she’s hopeful for a permanent peace that make such services routine rather than the exception.

Although the island’s conflict was never about religion, clerics have played an outsized political role in the past. The conflict that has left Nicosia as the world’s last divided capital boils down to power sharing and territorial control between the majority Greek Cypriots and minority Turkish Cypriots. But the Good Friday service is viewed as an example of how religion can help mend the island’s ethnic division in a part of the world where it has often been used to drive a wedge between people.

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Greek Orthodox Christian worshipers attend a Good Friday service at the church of Ayios Georgios Exorinos in Famagusta, in Cyprus’ breakaway Turkish Cypriot north on Friday, April 18, 2014. It’s the first time in nearly 60 years that such a service during Christianity’s holiest week is being held at this 14th century church. Although the island’s conflict has never been about religion, the service is seen as an example of how faith can help mend the island’s ethnic division. (AP Photo/Philippos Christou)THE ASSOCIATED PRESS

Greek Orthodox Christian worshipers attend a Good Friday service at the church of Ayios Georgios Exorinos in Famagusta, in Cyprus’ breakaway Turkish Cypriot north on Friday, April 18, 2014. It’s the first time in nearly 60 years that such a service during Christianity’s holiest week is being held at this 14th century church. Although the island’s conflict has never been about religion, the service is seen as an example of how faith can help mend the island’s ethnic division. (AP Photo/Philippos Christou)THE ASSOCIATED PRESS

http://www.foxnews.com/world/2014/04/19/religion-helps-heal-cyprus-ethnic-division-as-muslim-christian-leaders-wage/

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