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BY Edward Pentin
Could Pope Benedict’s visit to Cyprus next month become heavily politicized?
In an interview with Terrasanta.net, the Cypriot ambassador to the Holy See, George Poulides, said that the Pope’s June 4-6 visit will act as “a vigorous protest” against the Turkish occupation of the north of the island.
“The moral influence of the Pope is massive,” Ambassador Poulides told me last week. “His mere presence on this wounded island constitutes a vigorous protest against the injustice and the violence that the Cypriot people have undergone, namely the Turkish occupation.”
Cyprus has been territorially divided since Turkish troops invaded the Mediterranean island’s northern region in 1974, which later declared itself a Turkish republic in 1983. The formal division of the country followed centuries-long tensions between Greek and Turkish Cypriots which precipitated after Cyprus won independence from Britain in 1960.
Although steps have been made towards reconciliation, the path has been fraught with difficulties.
The Pope, who will not be setting foot in northern Cyprus, will doubtless bring a message of peace and reconciliation, also because he will be concerned about the well-being of the Maronite community in the north.
Most of the island’s population are Greek Orthodox, but as Poulides points out, “the Maronite community suffers because of the Turkish occupation as much as the other Christians.” He said they “face oppression and threats every day so that they will leave their homes, just as they [the Turks] forced hundreds of thousands of Christians and Greek-Cypriots before them.”
Poulides added that even many Turkish-Cypriots don’t wish to live in the north any longer because of a prevailing atmosphere of “violence and abuse of power”. He thinks that the Pope’s visit may, therefore, prompt the Turkish government to allow the north to decide their own future.
As always, the Vatican will try to be sensitive to local concerns and prevent the papal visit from veering too much into politics. Benedict XVI will be especially keen not to upset Turkey as he sees the country as crucial to his outreach to the Islamic world.
Rather, the main emphasis of the apostolic visit will be pastoral, helping the local Catholic minority in the country, and boosting relations with the Orthodox. The Holy Father will also use the trip to present the Instrumentum Laboris (working document) to bishops participating in the synod on the Middle East, to be held in Rome in October.
But the Greek Cypriot government, ironically headed by an elected Communist president, understandably wants politics to take centre stage. God willing, matters will work out best for all sides.