Pope Francis has met the leader of Cyprus’ Greek Orthodox Church with the aim of further mending an ideological and political rift between the Catholic West and the Orthodox East that dates back nearly a millennium.
After Archbishop Chrysostomos II greeted Francis, the two held talks behind closed doors on the second day of the pope’s three-day trip to Cyprus.
They are later joining the Holy Synod, the highest decision-making body of the Greek Orthodox Church.
Francis is scheduled to preside over an ecumenical prayer service with migrants later in the day.
Although Cyprus comprises a tiny part of the Eastern Orthodox community with around 800,000 faithful, Cypriot church leaders point to the Mediterranean island’s role as the “gateway” to Christianity’s westward expansion owing to its proximity to the faith’s birthplace.
Christianity first spread to Cyprus in 45 AD, when the Apostle Paul converted the island’s Roman governor, Sergius Paulus, while on the first stop of his first mission to spread the faith.
The Cypriot Church was itself said to have been founded by another apostle, Barnabas.
Francis has made Cyprus’ connection to the roots of Christianity a focal point of his visit. Cypriot Church leaders are keen to strengthen ties with the Holy See since minority Christian communities in nearby countries fear that their faith is under attack amid armed conflicts.
Cyprus itself carries the scars of war. The nation divided along ethnic lines in 1974 when Turkey invaded following a coup aimed at uniting the island with Greece. After the ethnic split, 170,000 Christians fled the breakaway Turkish Cypriot north, where churches, monasteries and other Christian monuments have been destroyed.
Tens of thousands of Muslim Turkish Cypriots fled northward following the end of hostilities.
The destruction of Christian places of worship is among the key issues that Archbishop Chrysostomos is expected to raise with Francis in hopes that the pontiff’s political muscle will help reignite stalled talks to reunify Cyprus.
Upon his arrival on Thursday, Francis urged Greek Cypriots and Turkish Cypriots to resume the talks, saying threats and shows of force only prolong the “terrible laceration” the island’s people have endured for nearly half a century.
“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 at the presidential palace, located in the internally recognised, Greek Cypriot-led south.
Prospects for unifying the island have rarely been as bleak as they are now. Turkish Cypriots, under their newly elected leader Ersin Tatar, changed their prerequisites for peace and demanded recognition of a separate state before any deal can even be discussed.
Previously both sides had agreed – with a United Nations Security Council endorsement – that any deal would involve establishing a two-zone federation, with a Turkish Cypriot zone in the north, a Greek Cypriot one in the south and a single federal government regulating core ministries, including defence and foreign affairs.
Acknowledging the delays in talks and the continuing suffering of Christians unable to return to their former homes in the majority Muslim north, Francis encouraged an initiative of the island’s Christian and Muslim faith leaders to promote reconciliation.
“Times that seem least favourable, when dialogue languishes, can be the very times that prepare for peace,” the pontiff said.