Letter from Thessaloniki

Some see another year of new peaks, others warn grimly of a crash. Maybe it’s time to refinance. Along with mobile telephone footage of underage sex on Greek television stations, bouncy markets and signs of global warming, the battle between high and low in Cyprus is what you should focus on when you are watching the news. Just recently, the Bank of Cyprus was among the best performers on the Athens Stock Exchange (ASE), up 5.84 percent to 9.42 euros. Now for the more religious-minded, for those who constantly wait for signs that the last battle between good and evil is about to unfold, a good sign: The Church of Greece yesterday elected as its new head Paphos Metropolitan Chrysostomos, who will replace the outgoing archbishop of the same name who who has been incapacitated by Alzheimer’s disease for the past four years. There were papers which described the election as a «Byzantine thriller.» Chrysostomos succeeded the late archbishop and first president of the republic of Cyprus Makarios, who died on August 3, 1977. Religion is a significant component of Greek-Cypriot society, playing a much stronger role than it does for Turkish Cypriots. The fact that Archbishop Makarios, the leader of the Greek-Cypriot campaign for independence in the 1950s, was also the head of the Greek Orthodox Church on the island and president from independence in 1960 until his death in 1977 shows the strong relationship between Church and State on Cyprus. Nevertheless the constitution of the Republic of Cyprus provides for freedom of religion, and the government respects this right in practice. In this context, it is interesting to note that there are no prohibitions against missionary activity or proselytizing in the government-controlled areas. Foreign missionaries must obtain and periodically renew residence permits in order to live – and do whatever they profess to be doing – in the country; usually renewal requests are not denied. Fundamentalist Christianity is racing through Cyprus, and the boom is not among tweedy Presbyterians but among charismatic Pentecostals. Nevertheless instruction in the Greek Orthodox religion is mandatory for all Greek Orthodox children and is taught in all public primary and secondary schools in classes held twice per week in the government-controlled area. Jehovah’s Witnesses and Maronite parents can request that their children be excused from such instruction. Such requests routinely are granted. Let’s note here that authorities in the Turkish-occupied territories do not permit Armenians to visit any religious sites in the north. But let’s get back to the south, where the Greek Orthodox Church – a most significant economic factor in the divided island – is the largest owner of real estate plus the operator of several large and prosperous business enterprises. The Church of Cyprus is also rich in sacred treasures. When in the year 478 the remains of its founder, Saint Barnabas, were located on the island in a tomb together with a copy of the gospel of Saint Matthew, the Cypriot Church gained the great privilege of naming itself autocephalous. Since then its heads have enjoyed exceptional privileges, such as signing in red ink, wearing a special empirical tunic at important ceremonies and holding a sceptre. Sure enough, one of the deepest divides in Cyprus today is the gulf of mutual suspicion that separates Muslim from Christian societies. Well doesn’t the same happen in the US between evangelicals and secularists? In such cases both sides need to reach out, drop the contempt and display some of the inclusive wisdom of a recent film, «Akamas,» by Panikos Chrysanthou where – heterosexual – love triumphs. This Cypriot (79 percent), Hungarian (11 percent), Turkish (10 percent) co-production shows how well a Greek-Turkish couple survive together, even during the most difficult periods of the island’s troubled history. The film will be shown later this month at Thessaloniki’s International Festival. Understandably religious divides do not exist only in Cyprus. Tomorrow as Americans go to the polls in vital midterm elections and the country is bracing itself for a Democratic wave, it is difficult to be aware of President George W. Bush without acknowledging the centrality of his faith. According to Gallup polls, the fact that evangelicals or born-again Christians are uncomfortable with the idea of condoms, sex education and gay marriage have cost Republicans dearly. As a matter of fact polls show support for Democratic candidates surging. And just as liberal critiques sometimes have a sneering tone about conservative Christianity, some sort of mockery was expressed by Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan the day before yesterday, when he said he was not leaving town to avoid having to meet the pope later this month. Pope Benedict XVI is scheduled to arrive in Turkey, his first trip to a Muslim country, on November 28, the same day a NATO summit begins in Riga, Latvia. «I don’t arrange my schedule according to the pope,» sneered Erdogan, one of many prominent Muslims to have strongly criticized the pope for his remarks that characterized the Prophet Muhammad’s teaching as «evil and inhuman.»

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