NICOSIA, Cyprus (AP) — Pope Francis on Thursday urged Greek Cypriots and the breakaway Turkish Cypriots to resume talks on reunifying the Mediterranean island nation, saying threats and shows of force were only prolonging the “terrible laceration” its people have endured for nearly a half-century.
A weary-looking Francis made the appeal as he arrived in the ethnically divided Cypriot capital at the start of a five-day visit that will also take him to Greece, a similarly Orthodox majority country on Europe’s southeastern edge.
“Let us nurture hope by the power of gestures, rather than by gestures of power,” Francis told Cypriot President Nicos Anastasiades and other government leaders.
Cyprus was split in 1974 when Turkey invaded following a coup by supporters of union with Greece. Only Turkey recognizes the Turkish Cypriot declaration of independence in the north, where Ankara maintains more than 35,000 troops.
Prospects for unifying the island have rarely been as bleak as they are now, after the Turkish Cypriots, under their newly elected leader Ersin Tatar, changed tack to demanded recognition of a separate state before any peace deal can even be discussed.
Previously both sides had agreed — with a United Nations Security Council endorsement — that any deal would be based on a two-zone federation of a Turkish Cypriot zone in the north and a Greek Cypriot one in the south, with one federal government regulating core ministries including defense and foreign affairs.
Acknowledging the stall in talks and the continuing suffering of Christians unable to return to their homes in the majority Muslim north, Francis encouraged an initiative of the island’s Christian and Muslim faith leaders to promote reconciliation. He recalled that “times that seem least favorable, when dialogue languishes, can be the very times that prepare for peace.”
In Nicosia, Francis immediately came face-to-face with the reality of the ethnically divided Cypriot capital.
Francis is staying in the Vatican nunciature, or embassy, which is located in the U.N.-controlled buffer zone that divides Cyprus.
Speaking to Anastasiades at the presidential palace, Francis said dialogue was the only way to reconciliation.
“There is a power of gestures which prepares the way of peace,” he said. “Not gestures of power, threats of reprisal and shows of force, but gestures of détente and concrete steps toward dialogue.”
The shows of force was a presumed reference to Turkey’s saber-rattling in waters around Cyprus where undersea gas deposits have recently been discovered.
Turkey claims 40% of Cyprus’ offshore exclusive economic zone as its own and those of the breakaway Turkish Cypriots, insisting that the Cypriot government’s “unilateral” move to issue drilling licenses to energy companies like ExxonMobil, Italy’s Eni and France’s Total infringes on its own rights to the area’s offshore wealth.
Turkey has dispatched its own warship-escorted drill ships to search for gas off Cyprus, something that the Cypriot government calls a blatant violation of its sovereign rights and international law.
The Cypriot government accuses Ankara of trying to extend its hegemony over the eastern Mediterranean by using northern Cyprus as a forward military base for Turkish forces and drones.
Anastasiades said as much in his speech to Francis, denouncing “Turkey’s continued intransigence," its “unprecedented belligerence" and “bellicose rhetoric." He vowed to nevertheless work to find a just settlement and reunification of all Cyprus' communities.
Francis’ first stop in Cyprus was a meeting with the country’s Maronite and Latin rite Catholic leaders at the Maronite cathedral. There, Francis praised the “mosaic” of Cyprus’ multiethnic people and urged the country and its church to continue welcoming migrants.
“This face of the church reflects Cyprus’ own place in the European continent: it is a land of golden fields, an island caressed by the waves of the sea, but above all else a history of intertwined peoples, a mosaic of encounters” he told the gathering.
Cyprus has seen such a spike in migrant arrivals this year — a 38% increase in the first 10 months compared with all of last year — that it has formally asked the European Commission to let it stop processing asylum claims altogether. It has more migrants per capita than any other European Union nation.
Francis is expected to echo the call for migrant welcome when he returns Sunday to Lesbos, Greece, where he made headlines in 2016 when he brought a dozen Syrian refugees home with him aboard the papal plane. Anastiades thanked Francis for arranging a similar transfer this time around of 50 migrants from Cyprus, to go later to Italy, and called for other European countries to step up to share the migrant burden.
Among the possible candidates for transfer to Italy after the pope’s visit are Grace Enjei and Daniel Ejuba, two Cameroonian asylum-seekers who crossed from the north about six months ago and got stuck in the buffer zone, where they have been living in a tent ever since.
“If help can come from anywhere, I will grab it,” Enjei said on the eve of Francis’ arrival. “And if I’m given the opportunity to like, make a choice, of course, anywhere in Europe will be OK.”
She and Ejuba said they paid hundreds of euros to someone in the north who showed them the way to cross through the U.N. line six months ago. They would face deportation if they returned to the north, but have been blocked from crossing into the south amid Cyprus’ crackdown on migrants, which has recently included a 27.5 million-euro ($31.8 million) deal with Israel for a camera system to monitor the 180-kilometer-long (110-mile-long) buffer zone.
Despite their precarious life in the U.N. buffer zone, Enjei says remaining in southern Cameroon wasn’t an option: Her home was burned down and random shootings and violence made her flee.
“I don’t regret leaving home. I don’t,” she said. “Even in my present situation, I still don’t regret it.”
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Nicole Winfield And Menelaos Hadjicostis, The Associated Press