Religion central to Cyprus problem

NICOSIA – When a private Cypriot think tank held an international conference on Islam and politics in the 1990s, some officials and academics stayed away, telling organizers they feared attending might be seen by some in the island’s overwhelmingly Greek Orthodox south as an endorsement of Islam. Then with the turn of the century came the possibility of an end to the division of Cyprus into a Turkish, Muslim north and a Greek, Christian south and the same think tank, the Center for World Dialogue, sponsored a course on Islam. This time, instead of suspicion, it got a full classroom. «People are starting to understand that if they do want to live together, they must learn to respect each other’s religion,» said Hossein Alikhani, a Cypriot businessman of Iranian descent who founded the Center for World Dialogue in 1994 to explore the influence of religion on politics and the dialogue between cultures and faiths. But it’s only a start, cautions Alikhani. However good the intentions of a few on both sides, many people still have a long way to go. Progress comes in fits. For example, Greek- and Turkish-Cypriot teachers for several years have been informally reviewing textbooks to identify which feed ethnic and religious passions. They agree that some books on both sides send the wrong signals but they haven’t yet done a comprehensive study or made specific recommendations. Memories of fighting tinged with both religious and ethnic hatred remain fresh. «The bitter experience we have had so far has given us nothing but hunger and misery and death,» said Zeki Beshitepeli, a Turkish-Cypriot law school professor. With Cyprus to enter the European Union next May, Beshitepeli said it’s time for the rest of Europe to take note of the lessons Cyprus learned the hard way. Europe’s native-born and immigrant Muslim populations are growing, and if Muslim majority Turkey succeeds in its quest to join the European Union, it would add a huge number of Muslims, more than 65 million, to the EU population. Vassos Lyssarides, a Greek Orthodox and former speaker of the Cypriot Parliament, says religion was used to promote division. Now, he said, it is should be clear that Cyprus’s rich, patchwork culture makes it typically European. «There are many multinational states in Europe,» he said. «I favor the opinion that civilization is much more beautiful when it is a collection of many different elements.» Cypriot culture has roots in the early arrival on the island of a variety of peoples – Egyptians, Phoenicians, Assyrians, Greeks. St Barnabas, a companion of the Apostle Paul, brought Orthodox Christianity to Cyprus a few years after the death of Christ. Today, an estimated 96 percent of southern Cypriots are Greek Orthodox, many of them regular churchgoers. Muslim warriors briefly conquered the island in the seventh century, but the most lasting influence of Islam came during Ottoman Turkish rule from the 16th century to late in the 19th century. The north today is believed to be 99 percent Muslim; northerners, influenced by modern Turkey’s secular tradition, are considered less bound to their faith than are southerners. The Turkish-Cypriot north’s isolation will not end when the island fully joins the European Union. The EU accepted the whole of Cyprus as a member but said EU laws and benefits that apply to the Greek-Cypriot south would not be extended to the Turkish-controlled north until the island is reunified. Turkey wants to join the European Union, too, but can do so only if the Cyprus question is resolved. Reunification seems possible given the desire of both Turkey and Turkish Cypriots to enjoy EU benefits. Earlier this year, when Turkish-Cypriot authorities rejected a UN plan that would have seen the north included in the EU accession, tens of thousands of Turkish Cypriots staged unprecedented protests. In April, authorities in northern Cyprus for the first time allowed Turkish and Greek Cypriots to make short visits across the UN buffer zone dividing the island, a move seen as an attempt to assuage public anger among Turkish Cypriots. That raised hopes of a settlement, but the Turkish-Cypriot leaders have not followed through with any political initiatives that could resume stalled reunification talks. The easing of travel has opened up Orthodox holy sites in the north to which Greek-Cypriot pilgrims had often been denied access. In response to those restrictions, the Greek-Cypriot government had barred northerners from Muslim shrines in the south. The tit-for-tat bans were an example of how politicians fanned religious resentment. Mistrust and misunderstanding linger after decades of division. Nikos Konomis, a former Cypriot education minister, is leading a campaign to demand that northern authorities protect antiquities and Greek Orthodox churches on territory they control. He appears near tears as he relates reports of churches turned into mosques, cafes, stables, «even toilets» and their icons and other treasures sold on the shadowy international art market. Konomis says the Turkish Cypriots mean no insult but are manipulated by mainland Turks, whom he says «hate everything Greek. They hate Christianity.» Turkish-Cypriot officials reject charges of desecration, attributing most damage to neglect, not policy. Churches have been turned into mosques in the north, but officials say that simply reflects demographics. For their part, Turkish Cypriots fear the conservative, pro-Greece tilt of the Orthodox Church. The late Cypriot Archbishop Makarios III was a leading advocate of union with Greece in the 1950s. However, after becoming Cyprus’s first president after independence from Britain in 1960, Makarios urged separation from both Greece and Turkey as the only way for the island’s split population to get along. The Church is still among Cyprus’s wealthiest institutions but has seen its political power wane for various reasons – among them the illness of its archbishop and financial and sex scandals – and some church leaders appear to be looking for ways to remain relevant. The Kykkos Monastery, whose abbot, Bishop Nikiforos, is considered a strong candidate to be a future archbishop, twice held major conferences aimed at promoting tolerance between Christians and Muslims. «If you have faith and believe that all mankind descended from Adam and Eve, why do we fight?» asked Beshitepeli, the Turkish-Cypriot professor.

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