Sunset - Larnaca

Sunset - Larnaca

Saturday, 27 February 2016

The Church of Cyprus & Reconciliation

This essay will demonstrate how the Church of Cyprus promotes, and should continue to promote reconciliation between the Greek and Turkish Cypriot communities within the divided island. By looking specifically at the recent work and efforts of the Diocese of Constantia in Famagusta, led by Bishop Vasilios, the piece will highlight how their frequent services in the occupied North promote integration, mutual respect and unity - concentrating on the importance of the very first service in St George’s church on Holy Friday of 2014 with the presence of the Mufti, political dignitaries, and thousands of Greek and Turkish Cypriot citizens. 

Christianity was initially brought to Cyprus by the Apostles Barnabas and Mark in the year 46AD. To this day, the Church plays a significant role in shaping the island’s society, culture and traditions; with it being one of the leading land and company owners,  philanthropic contributors, and is intrinsically connected to state affairs and the island’s politics. For these reasons, it has the responsibility of contributing to the aim of reunification; promoting reconciliation through its teaching and actions. Following a short summary of the Church of Cyprus’ movements, as aforementioned, the essay will focus on the Diocese of Constantia’s initiatives in the move towards a peaceful solution.

The Archbishop of Cyprus, Chrysostomos II, leads frequent meetings with the leading Turkish Cypriot Mufti, along with other religious minorities (mainly Maronites and Armenians) , in order to discuss the restoration of historical and holy sites on the island - a move which has introduced more collaboration, integration and mutual understanding. These fruitful meetings took several years of campaigning, including a lengthy process of alerting the international community of the many ruined and abandoned Churches in the North of the island. One such strategy in creating this awareness, was the Church of Cyprus’ presence within the EU’s headquarters in Brussels; represented by the Bishop of Neapolis, Porphyrios.  With persistent persuasion and dialogue, the Turkish Cypriot community began to agree that this step of religious restoration would inevitably bring the two communities together. It is also important to note that within the Greek South, Turkish mosques have always been maintained by the state and authorities, with utmost respect and sensitivity. One might think that the Greek South would adopt a more hostile attitude after much of its heritage and settlements were invaded, however their stance has honourably remained true to the Christian understanding of respect for others. This noble respect in the South, towards the Turkish Cypriot Muslim heritage (with the up-keeping of the pilgrimage site of Hala Sultan Tekke Mosque in Larnaca as a prime example) has been supported by, if not as a result of, the Church and its teaching. 

The Metropolis of Constantia (a Diocese which covers an area of the occupied North, in the region of Famagusta) has gone to great efforts in order to re-open and worship in churches within the occupied areas. This simple yet bold step has meant an increase in integration; with many Greek Cypriots travelling to the North in order to partake in the Liturgy in their re-opened parishes. Turkish Cypriots likewise support this move; with their Muslim cleric, the Mufti Dr Talip Atalay,  offering back the keys of Famagusta’s St George’s church in the centre of the occupied town on Holy Friday of 2015, in order for it to be used by the Diocese on a weekly basis. Witnessing this step forward, Olav Fykse Tveit, the General Secretary of the WCC described Cyprus as 'a station for the pilgrimage of justice and peace.’ This significant act of returning the church keys to the local diocese of occupied Famagusta, with several dignitaries from all political circles attending, is ‘a clear message of promoting the conviction that religion is a powerful tool for reconciliation and not for division,’ Metropolitan Vasilios stated. This took place on Holy Friday in 2014, during the first church service for 58 years, since the occupation; understandably creating tears of sadness, but also of hope and joy. The Most Reverend Metropolitan Vasilios also said that this historical service was a divine act which will contribute to solidifying good relations between the two communities. It is therefore clear that in relation to the peace process and negotiations towards a political settlement, the Church of Cyprus (and its example of reconciliation and relationship with the Turkish Muslim leaders) is of paramount importance. 

Bishop Vasilios noted that at the centre of our Christian faith, is the fact our Saviour reconciles us with God, and consequently reconciles us with each other as human beings. Through Our Lord’s crucifixion, burial and Resurrection we are truly united to Him and to each other. As Metropolitan Vasilios stated, His sacrifice for mankind is ‘the divine act of reconciliation par excellence.’  Though we have transgressed, the paradox is that God does not take vengeance but sends His Son to establish communion with us. The Most Reverend Vasilios concluded that if we want to be coherent with our faith, we have to work for our reconciliation with God and fellow men. This great act, celebrating Easter in the occupied North, with the presence of the Mufti and many Turkish-Cypriots, who that week celebrated the birth of their Prophet Mohammed, would be seen as an impossibility years ago post-invasion. This miraculous and significant act surely emphasises that God does indeed offer peace, restoration and reconciliation among us when we work together; uniting us, regardless of religious affiliations or cultural differences, as two communities appreciating and rejoicing in our shared island of faith, hospitality, and love. 

The mufti in turn, emphasised that Cyprus, the island of beauty, consists of two communities who are able to share everything together - such as that particular church service, on Holy Friday. He then noted that he believes the religious leaders, with their good hearts, are able to make an influential and beneficial move towards reconciliation. These events and acts bring us together, allowing us to know one another face to face, leading to a positive mentality.

The Greek word used by Metropolitan Vasilios, καταλλαγή, is directly linked to the New Testament; in particular Saint Paul’s letter to the Romans:

“oὐ μόνον δέ, ἀλλὰ καὶ καυχώμενοι ἐν τῷ Θεῷ διὰ τοῦ Κυρίου ἡμῶν Ἰησοῦ Χριστοῦ, δι’ οὗ νῦν τὴν καταλλαγὴν ἐλάβομεν”  (Rom 5:11) 

The theologian Iliana Kaoura, of the Metropolis of Constantia, emphasises that reconciliation is God’s plan of economy, beginning with the Creation, and fulfilled by Christ’s incarnation and sacrifice. The Lord’s passion and sacrifice reconciles us all with one another, however the starting point is of course God’s invitation and act of reconciliation towards man. He, through His sacrificial act and destruction of death and evil, as well as His constant renewal of mankind through the sacramental work of His Church, clearly desires forgiveness and peace. It is thus our duty to act upon this holy desire in building bridges between the Cypriot communities, with the services in Famagusta being a prime example. Theodoritos of Syria (393-457) tells us that man has often been in a state of war with God (just as we have been at war with each other in Cyprus’ context) however as the very definition of love (1 John 4:8) He forgives all of mankind, and to put it simply, wants the best for us. This is indeed the message given by Metropolitan Vasilios, addressing the island on such a historic occasion. Having faith in God at the starting point of Cyprus’ reconciliation process is crucial, and perhaps the Most-Reverend Vasilios’ comment on how the event ‘was a miracle, which would have seemed impossible’ is an affirmation of this. Although, as human beings, we have social, ethnic, cultural, personal, religious differences, somehow our Creator and Saviour manages to reconcile us together. “For with God, all things are possible.” (Matt 19:26) At the same time however, as human beings, and just as the Church of Cyprus should continue to do, our own sacrificial efforts and acts of unity and love are needed in this process. We read in Matthew’s Gospel that we must first be reconciled to our brothers, and then offer our gift to God (Matt 5:23-24). Iliana Kaoura thus concludes that reconciliation is inseparable from worship. Sin (or as Theodoritos described it, being at war with God and man) distracts us from the realisation of how vital reconciliation is regarding our spiritual lives. Within Cyprus’ historical and political context some Christians will understandably experience feelings of sadness if not bitterness. However, Kaoura highlights that reconciliation takes place through the greatest virtue: love. (I Cor 13:13) Worshipping God, especially alongside Turkish Cypriot Muslim compatriots is truly impossible without reconciling with one another; and so the Church of Cyprus’ services within the occupied North surely proves that this is indeed taking place, and restoration and reunification is on its way.

To conclude, this essay has demonstrated how the Church of Cyprus’ (and in particular the Diocese of Constantia's) recent effort to re-open and use parishes in the occupied north for regular services is a significant step towards reconciliation and peaceful co-habitation of the two communities. Christian theology maintains the view that the source of reconciliation is Christ, our God and Saviour, and so significantly it was on Holy Friday, the day in which we celebrate His crucifixion and burial that this seemingly impossible act and event of integration and mutual love took place in Famagusta. The Church of Cyprus should continue to maintain its exemplary relations with the Turkish Cypriot Muslim community, as a beacon of hope and faith, highlighting that a solution will stem from our trust in the God of peace (Phil 4:6-7) and uniter of all (Gal 3:28). 




Sources:

Kypris, C 1985, The History of Cyprus. Nicosia: Proodos Printing.

Turkish Cypriot returns key of occupied church to the Church of Cyprus, 2014. Available from http://famagusta-gazette.com/turkish-cypriot-returns-key-of-occupied-church-to-the-church-of-cyprus-p23204-69.htm.

Kenny P 2014, Church opening on Turkish Side of Divided Cyprus seen Aiding Reconciliation. Available from http://www.pravoslavie.ru/english/81500.htm.


Κάουρα Η 2015, Κυριακή Γ’ Επιστολών Αποστ. Ανάγνωσμα: Ρωμ. 5: 1-10. Available from http://www.imconstantias.org.cy/2193.html.