Pope Benedict XVI risks walking into a political minefield next month when he visits the Mediterranean island of Cyprus, the first of three papal visits later this year which pose considerable challenges for the pontiff.
Cyprus has been racked by tensions and conflict between a Turkish-ruled north and a larger Greek Cypriot-governed south — a dispute which goes back many centuries and continues despite many attempts at reconciliation.
The Pope, who will bring messages of peace to the island, will not be visiting the north during his intense June 4-6 trip, but instead will spend all his time in the Greek Cypriot south.
The government there is already capitalizing on this fact: the Cypriot ambassador to the Holy See, George Poulides, has said the Pope’s visit will act as “a vigorous protest” against the Turkish occupation of the north of the island. Turkey invaded the northern region in 1974, and it was unilaterally declared a Turkish republic in 1983.
“The moral influence of the Pope is massive,” said Poulides in an interview with Terrasanta.net, a Franciscan publication. “His mere presence on this wounded island constitutes a vigorous protest against the injustice and the violence that the Cypriot people have undergone, namely the Turkish occupation.”
Most of the island’s population are Greek Orthodox, but some Catholic Maronites live in the north as well as in the south. Poulides said they “suffer because of the Turkish occupation,” having to face “oppression and threats every day so that they will leave their homes, just as they [the Turks] forced hundreds of thousands of Christians and Greek-Cypriots before them.”
He said that churches and monasteries in the north “have been looted, destroyed or transformed into stables, hotels and storehouses — a destruction that has been denounced in several occasions by the Catholic Church.”
Poulides also claimed that even many Turkish-Cypriots don’t wish to live in the north anymore because of a prevailing atmosphere of “violence and abuse of power.” He thinks that the Pope’s visit may, therefore, prompt the Turkish government to allow the north to decide their own future.
As always, the Vatican will try to be sensitive to local concerns and prevent the papal visit from veering too much into politics. Benedict XVI is especially keen not to upset Turkey as he sees the country as crucial to his outreach to the Islamic world. The Pope’s main aim is to help the local Catholic minority in the country, boost Catholic relations with the Orthodox church, and present a document to bishops from the Middle East ahead of a synod on the region, to be held in Rome in October.
The visit will be 1 of 3 particularly challenging papal trips scheduled for later this year. In September, he is to make a state visit to an increasingly secularist Great Britain. A petition has been set up in opposition to the trip, attracting over 10,000 signatures, and last month officials in the country’s Foreign Office were suspended for writing a derogatory memo on the visit. Two prominent British atheists, Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens, have also called for the Pope to be arrested on grounds that he covered up sexual abuse by clergy, even though no evidence has emerged to indict him.
In November, the Pope will visit Spain where the government has pushed through a raft of social policies directly opposed to the teachings of the Catholic Church. Spain’s Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero is to visit the Pope in June, which may help to ease tensions ahead of the trip, but his government remains a deep disappointment for the Church in what once was one of Europe’s most Catholic countries.
Despite these ominous challenges, however, these visits are likely to run smoothly. Regardless of the opposition he attracts from certain groups, Benedict XVI’s kind and meek personality, as well as his consummate skills as a teacher, tend to disarm his critics.
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