ROME – By necessity, media coverage of papal trips is always far more about what’s pitched than what’s caught. Under pressures of time, reporters do an excellent job of capturing what the pope says and does, where he goes and whom he meets, and the message he appears to be trying to get across, but that’s about it.
The extent to which that message sinks in, shaping hearts and minds and making a difference in the real world, requires time and perspective to assess, and those are things a 24-7 news cycle simply does not permit.
Every now and then, however, a trip throws up a few clues as to its impact in real time. To the extent that happened over the past two days with Pope Francis in Cyprus, it wasn’t exactly encouraging as to whether the pontiff’s message of reconciliation, dialogue and letting bygones be bygones was likely to fall on fertile soil.
Since 1974, the island nation of Cyprus has been divided between a Turkish north and a Greek south, the uneasy result of a coup d’état by a Greek military junta and a subsequent invasion by Turkey. The chaos followed four centuries of Ottoman rule and another 100 years as a British colony, making Cyprus the most acute, and most violent, case of the broader tensions between Greece and Turkey.
Ironically, today it’s the Greek majority of about 643,000 that opposes a negotiated reunification, while the Turkish minority of about 180,000 supports it because it would likely mean a weak central government and considerable regional autonomy.
From the beginning, Francis has seen himself as a “peace pope,” often choosing to visit global hotspots where a chance to heal is especially valuable. Cyprus, therefore, was always a natural for this pope, with the added bonus of giving him a chance to move the ball both on ecumenical relations with the Orthodox and on inter-faith ties with Islam because of its demography.
Yet early returns suggest that while Francis may have seen the stop in Cyprus as a chance to forget the wound of the past, his largely Greek hosts saw it instead as a chance to showcase those wounds before an international audience.
Consider the tone set by Cyprus President Nicos Anastasiades in his remarks Thursday at the Presidential Palace in Nicosia. After some perfunctory praise of Francis for his good works, Anastasiades got down to business.
“Permit me a brief reference to the problem of Cyprus, in which you’re particularly interested,” he said.
“There’s no doubt about:
The illegal military occupation currently underway of 36 percent of the territory of the Republic of Cyprus by the part of Turkey;
The displacement of 30 percent of the population, who became refugees;
The unresolved question of the fate of their relatives;
The destruction of cultural and religion monuments in the occupied territories, which are aspects which brutally offend humanity, and they revive the pain which we’ve lived and are living.”
Sound much like someone in the mood to forgive and forget?
“What I would like to assure you is that, despite the longstanding intransigent position of Turkey, which hasn’t permitted an honest, sustainable and just solution, we will continue our struggle for the defense of human rights, the prevalence of peace and the reunification of all the communities of Cyprus, Greek-Cypriot, Turkish-Cypriot, Maronites, Latins and Armenians,” Anastasiades said.
“To that end, our Turkish-Cypriot compatriots, freed from the past, must welcome perspectives which offer to all permanent residents and the entire territory the possibility of a reunified and completely independent country,” he added.
You might think that’s just a politician for you, but surely the tone would be different from the country’s spiritual leadership. Not so, however, judging by the remarks of His Beatitude Chrysostomos II, Orthodox Archbishop of Cyprus, to the pope on Friday.
“Turkey has a plan of ethnic cleansing for Cyprus. The 200,000 Christian inhabitants who were driven out of their family homes with incredible barbarity were replaced by twice the same number of colonists from deep in Anatolia, thereby destroying our classic culture formed since time immemorial,” he said.
Chrysostomos was only getting warmed up.
“Moreover, they confiscated our historic Byzantine churches, with their unsurpassable and precious Byzantine ecclesiastical mosaics, the icons of the saints who introduce the mysteries and that manifest our extremely high level of culture, and they depredated the priests with incredible and unprecedented barbarity,” Chrysostomos said.
“On the basis of their abominable plans, they changed all our historic place names, so that no Christian or Greek names exist. Wherever our Greek and Christian cultural flowered and gave rich fruits, now, for half a century, the spiritual tumult of the Asiatic step dominates.”
“They not only imitated the barbaric bloodthirst of Atilla the Hun, but they actually did worse than him,” he said.
Godwin’s law states that in any internet argument, the longer it goes on the higher the probability that someone will make a comparison to Hitler. But if Hitler is bad, how steamed to you have to be to invoke Atilla the Hun?
Granted, these are only two figures, both older men invested in the legacy of the past, and both representing just the Greek side of the equation.
Still, to the extent that they represent the audience Francis addressed on his two-day stop in Cyprus, it’s legitimate to wonder how much “reconciliation” this, or any other, pope could actually engineer.