Pope Francis arrives tomorrow in the last divided European capital

ROME.- Amid fear of the new omicron variant and days before its 85th birthday on December 17, Pope Francis embarks on a five-day trip to Cyprus and Greece this Thursday, with which he will once again put the migrant crisis in the spotlighta global humanitarian drama, but also the political division of the island of Cyprus, a still unresolved political problem in a region of the world marked by major conflicts.

On the 35th international trip of his pontificate to lands considered the cradle of Western civilization, Pope Francis will begin his journey in Nicosia, the last divided capital of the European continent. Cyprus, the third largest island in the Mediterranean (after Sicily and Sardinia) was invaded in 1974 by Turkish military forces and was divided into a Turkish Cypriot part in the north and a Greek Cypriot part in the south, separated by a “green zone”. double”. This border, marked by barbed wire and in some parts by walls, also divides the capital, Nicosia. And Pope Francis will be able to feel it in his own flesh because the nunciature, where he will stay for two days, is located in the complex of a Franciscan convent which stands in the so-called “no man’s land”, an area controlled by United Nations troops, among which are some 200 Argentinian blue helmets.

An aerial view of NicosiaAMIR MAKAR – AFP

Of a population of 1.6 million, approximately 850,000 are Greek Cypriots and just over 320,000 Turks. Most Greek Cypriots are Orthodox Christians and most Turkish Cypriots are Sunni Muslims.

As the Pope’s spokesman, Matteo Bruni, admitted to the Holy See, which supports all attempts at dialogue between the two parties, the division of the island of Cyprus “is an open wound”. And it is to be hoped that the Pope, who since the beginning of his pontificate has insisted on the culture of encounter, calls for the demolition of this odious wall and invite negotiations so that a difficult reunification agreement can be reached.

Strategic base and place of passage for various peoples and civilizations, dominated by the Greeks, the Romans, under British domination after having been part of the Ottoman Empire, Cyprus obtained its independence from the United Kingdom in 1960. In 1974, following in a coup by a military junta then in power in Greece, Turkey invaded and occupied the northern part of the island. The invasion resulted in the death, destruction and displacement of some 200,000 Greek Cypriots from north to south. The Turks destroyed icons, frescoes and other works of art from ancient churches in the north, which they converted into mosques. In 1983, Turkey proclaimed a “Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus”, which is not recognized by any country and where some 47,000 Turkish soldiers are estimated to be stationed.

The Vatican flag flies in front of the Church of the Holy Cross in Nicosia
The Vatican flag flies in front of the Church of the Holy Cross in NicosiaPetros Karadjias – AP

In 2004, Cyprus became a member of the European Union; and all attempts failed, including a United Nations proposal for reunification. The talks never prospered not only because of Turkey’s insistence on the right to intervene militarily, but also because of Ankara’s claims over natural gas deposits in the eastern Mediterranean. Additionally, the coronavirus pandemic has added tensions related to Greek Cypriot President Nikos Anastasiades’ decision to close some checkpoints between the two halves of the island to limit contagion.

Francis will be the second pontiff to set foot on this island where the apostle Saint Paul preached., who was visited by Benedict XVI, Pope Emeritus, in 2010. He will take advantage of this trip to continue to strengthen the already good relations with the Orthodox Christian majority and to encourage the small Catholic minority, which he will also do in Greece. But also in Cyprus, an island located 70 kilometers from the Turkish coast and 100 from the Syrian coast, will be confronted with the burning issue of migrants: it is estimated that in the first ten months of the year some 10,000 refugees arrived there, illegally crossing the “Green Line”. Although other reports speak of the presence of more than 33,000. So much so that, as Cypriot government sources predicted, the pope could bring about 50 asylum seekers back to the Vatican. Although he wouldn’t do it on his own plane, as he did in 2016 when he flew three Syrian refugee families from a refugee camp on the Greek island of Lesbos, the group would arrive later. late. “Let’s wait for things to happen, don’t rush,” the pope’s spokesman said, without confirming or denying the versions.

Pope Francis, who will fly Saturday from Cyprus to Athens, where he will be received with full honors by the civil and religious authorities, on Sunday he will return to the island of Lesbossymbol of the drama of hundreds of thousands of people who flee their land to survive war and misery, and who end up being prisoners in migrant centers that look like prisons.

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