Letter from Nicosia

Last week in the free part of Nicosia, one day after Greek and Turkish Cypriots celebrated May Day together after more than 40 years, it almost seemed as if the time has come for all religions to give up and start all over again. The occasion was unique: In a «World Forum of Religions and Cultures» co-organized by Archangelos Church, the Cultural Foundation of the Holy (and extremely prosperous) Monastery of Kykkos and the Cultural Olympiad 2001-2004 presided over by Greek Minister of Culture Evangelos Venizelos, «Religions and Cultures» looked as if geographical, ethnic and cultural boundaries have been passed by. The hundreds of representatives of world churches, politicians, professors and journalists who gathered in Nicosia from May 2-5 appear (I repeat «appear») to have in mind that all the planet’s religions might agree to a meeting that would choose a single new religion to represent everyone on Earth. They are not. Sure enough, I exaggerate. In such a case there would, in all certainty, be problems. But with patience and God’s help, one feels these could be worked out. In this spirit the main host, Nikiforos, Bishop of Kykkos, stressed that he considered this conference («Ecumenism and Culture in the Globalization Era: The Paths of Peace») to be a hopeful development against fanaticism, violence, terrorism and wars. In an unusually inspired speech, the other host, Minister of Culture Evangelos Venizelos, deflated the pompous, tweaked the powerful and weighed in passionately on such issues as «the osmosis between Greeks and Turks,» as he referred to the hundreds of thousands of Cypriots from both sides that have crossed their divided island since travel restrictions were eased after 29 years. «What are politicians doing here anyway?» the octogenarian Nazim Kibrisi, president of the International Islam Organization «from the other side» of Nicosia, asked the illustrious gathering. «I reckoned I would find here just spiritual leaders!» Well, in the case of Evangelos Venizelos (also a professor), the Muslim spiritual leader was wrong. The Greek minister of culture presented an accomplished dissertation on the «Culture of Civilizations» and socratically meditated in public about the coincidence of timing. He also declared that the next meeting will take place next spring, a few months before the Olympics in Athens. However, in our age of bombast, young at heart Nazim Kibrisi stole the show with his simple parables and unsophisticated stories about Jesus and Alexander the Great. In the true spirit of a Cultural Olympiad worthy of its name, there were also moments of strong arguments concerning the correct usage of philosophical terms. Or, say, traditionalists versus technocrats. Dimitris Nanopoulos, Chair in High Energy Physics, Texas A&M University, USA versus Christos Yiannaras, professor emeritus at Panteion University, Athens, Greece. Finally, being the generous philosopher he is, Yiannaras apologized. During the morning hours the second public television network RIK-2 has been transmitting live the highly sophisticated works of this international meeting, with subjects such as «Religions and Cultures in the Face of Globalization: Pretext, Necessity or Invention?» and «Religions and Identities between War and Peace.» However, in the afternoon this good channel returned to its usual entertaining program; for example, the songs of the forthcoming Eurovision contest in Riga, Latvia, on May 24. Cyprus will be represented this year by Stelios Konstantas, a performer who moved from Greece to Cyprus and will be singing «Feeling Alive.» Yet the real news was, by all means, elsewhere. Well, you probably already know all the significant events that have preceded along the Green Line separating the Cypriot capital. More than 170,000 people have crossed over since April 21. Now, we all also know from our nation’s leaders that unspeakable perils may still await us. Condemning all those Greek Cypriots who conducted themselves as tourists in the occupied areas, gambling in the casinos of the north, boozing and womanizing with girls from former Eastern bloc countries, Cyprus Tourism Minister George Lillikas declared the other day that such visits «can be interpreted as an acceptance of the current situation as a solution.» The north allows a stay of up to three nights for Greek Cypriots, provided they stay in hotels in the north. Politicians and associations in Nicosia were strongly opposed to such overnight stays at hotels in the occupied areas. The travel relaxation permitted some Turkish Cypriots to be present, last Friday, at a reception in the lush gardens of Metochion Kykkou. «We also hear from our leaders that the perils lurk we know not where. Their forms and shapes are beyond imagination, they say. Their scope could threaten our very existence,» a young Turkish Cypriot, who would rather not be named, said in jest as we were speaking in the cool of the night. «A people who has been in conflict for 40 years, abruptly take over from their politicians, and they simply don’t like that. But don’t despair… After the recent developments we are now ready to think the unthinkable. Even abolish politicians.» The Turkish-Cypriot leader hadn’t been invited, but it was just as well he dropped in. People spoke constantly of him and of his regime – note, not especially favorably. Belatedly, some days ago Rauf Denktash spoke of a «honeymoon season» between Turkish and Greek Cypriots. «But one should not be mistaken that it is there to stay forever because the political reasons for conflict still exist,» Denktash said. Meanwhile people from both sides continue to jam roads leading to the border checkpoints in the divided island despite temperatures of over 30C. There is a strong Turkish audio flavor in all this. Telecommunications with the north will probably be possible within the week. The only inconvenience is that callers will have to go through Turkey first – by dialling the prefix 0090 – adding 392, which connects them with the north of Cyprus.

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