A one-man campaign

LIMASSOL (AFP) – Standing outside his humble church in Limassol, a popular tourist town on the south coast of Cyprus, Father Savvas Michaelides, with his bushy graying beard and dark robes, could be mistaken for a Russian priest. Few would suspect that he has a 10,000-Cypriot-pound (17,000-euro, $25,000) bounty on his head after waging a one-man war on the seedy world of sex trafficking which is blighting this Mediterranean island. He has taken up the fight against sexual exploitation on behalf of what he says are the thousands of women forced to work in the country’s illegal sex industry. Armed with a fearless frankness and booming voice, he thundered through an explanation of the plight of the young girls from Eastern Europe and Africa, forced to work as prostitutes by unscrupulous «cabaret» owners. «The pimps tell them they are coming here to work as dancers or in bars. In truth, they must become prostitutes, and are locked away, sometimes beaten and raped,» he said. Most have their passports taken from them, allegedly «for safe keeping» but in reality it is to keep them prisoners. «All this is possible because they are given ‘artistes’ visas to enter the country by the Cypriot authorities,» he said angrily, referring to special permits for working in the entertainment industry. Father Savvas was born in Limassol 60 years ago, leaving for Athens at 19 to study theology. Fascinated by the Orthodox Church, the dominant Christian denomination in the region, he sees the church in Russia as the «Mother of Churches,» and went to France to learn Russian. He returned to Cyprus to teach theology and only then did he decide to devote his life to the priesthood. «I gave myself time to reflect. I wanted to be sure of my calling,» he explained. Today, he works in the island’s only Russian Orthodox Church, in Limassol. In the intimate surroundings of his confessional, he learned shocking details of the reality of Cyprus’s sex industry. «The women have told me of the horrible things to which they are subjected. I have tried to persuade them to leave the cabaret clubs but I cannot offer them a practical solution,» he said. In 2001, a young Russian cabaret worker unwillingly drawn into prostitution plunged five stories to her death in the town. Reports that she had been trying to escape from a locked room drove Father Savvas into action. «It is not enough to speak the word of God, you must also take action,» he said. Three years later he was able to open a shelter for victims of sex trafficking. The refuge is the only one of its type in Cyprus and has helped around 300 victims. «We help them leave prostitution, return home to their own countries or find legal help if they want to make a formal complaint, which is rare because these women are terrorized,» he added. Father Savvas does not hesitate to go out onto the streets looking for vulnerable young women in the cabarets and confront their employers face-to-face. Tatiana is a Ukrainian and former sex worker rescued by the priest. «He is the only one who tries to help them. He is hated by the people traffickers but he doesn’t let it worry him. He just shrugs it off.» The priest sleeps little, reads a lot and never switches off his mobile telephone. The government provides only 17,000 euros a year to fund the center and Father Savvas survives on church offerings and a small state pension, much of which he uses to subsidize the shelter. He blames the Cypriot authorities for failing to ban «artistes» visas, the police for «sometimes closing their eyes» to the problem and the judiciary for being «often too lenient» with criminals. As for the Orthodox Church, he regrets that it «does not get more involved» in the issue. «I do not ask for money, but I wish they would more often offer a helping hand to these women,» he said. His crusade presents him with a moral dilemma. «My refuge is not the answer. When I save one woman, two others arrive in their place. I sometimes think I am actually encouraging trafficking. We have to pursue prevention by providing information to these women in their own countries.» While his rejection of abortion has attracted criticism – he promotes adoption of victims’ children – there can be no doubt he is confronting a problem many others chose to ignore. But his efforts are not without sacrifice. Asked about the 10,000 Cypriot pound price he says has been put on his head by underworld bosses, he said, «Ten thousand pounds? I had thought bravery was a little more highly valued.» When asked if he now fears for his life, he simply smiled and pointed to the sky, adding, «I have never been afraid of men, only Him.»