Places of prayer haunt architects of peace on Cyprus's divided island

As negotiators seek a deal on reunifying Cyprus, Daniel Howden reports on how UN efforts to restore two historic religious sites have come to symbolise the difficulties  
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The Independent Online

Father Georgiou, his black robes framing his care-worn face with its long white beard, looks much like any other Greek Orthodox priest at first glance. To understand what makes him different, follow his uneasy glance as he steps out of the gloom of the Apostle Andreas monastery into the bright Mediterranean daylight.

His eyes shoot upwards to the Turkish policemen patrolling the balcony above the chapel, a reminder that he has lived the last three decades under occupation. The caretaker and his monastery, the most important Christian monument on the divided island, are perched on the island's northernmost tip, far from the UN green line and the rest of the Greek-Cypriot community.

After the first phase of talks to reunify the island end today in Europe's last divided capital, Nicosia, leaders from all sides will go to Switzerland for a final push towards a consensus that will determine whether Fr Georgiou, 62, ends his life in a united Cyprus or on the wrong side of an ethnic partition.

Three hours drive south of the monastery, past the blue berets of the UN peacekeepers, lie the dome and minaret of the Hala Sultan Tekke mosque. Rising from the palm trees on the fringe of Larnaca's salt lake, they offer an elegant contrast to the tacky tourist strip that lines the nearby beach.

Like its Orthodox counterpart, the Tekke mosque is Islam's holiest site on the island and, like the monastery, it lies cut off from the bulk of the faithful on the other side of the barbed wire buffer zone.

Cyprus has been divided since a short-lived Greek-Cypriot coup in 1974 aimed at union with Greece prompted Turkey to invade. The breakaway Turkish-Cypriot state in the north is only recognised by Turkey, which maintains 40,000 troops there.

These two places of worship have symbolised hope and peaceful coexistence even during the darkest days of ethnic strife that followed the fighting in 1974.

For years, when the north was shut off to all other Greek-Cypriots, a few pilgrims were allowed to visit the monastery to celebrate Orthodox Easter. Just as the mosque was open to Turkish Cypriots for Muslim festivals.

For this reason, the two religious sites were chosen by the UN three years ago for a restoration project designed to foster rapprochement.

But international efforts have stalled and, millions of pounds later, the monastery is still in danger of collapse, while work on the mosque is mired in delays. What started as a symbolic peace effort has become an ominous reminder of the difficulties that face the architects of a unified Cyprus.

Leaders from all four parties are trying to reach a deal to bring a reunified Cyprus into the expanded, 25-nation European Union on 1 May. Without a deal, only the internationally recognised Greek Cypriot south would join, deepening the Turkish Cypriots' isolation and perhaps cementing partition.

Failure would also compound the international sense of exasperation at the conflict, the UN's longest-running peacekeeping mission. "All sides have entered the last chance saloon, whether they want to accept it or not," said a diplomat close to the talks, which have failed to deliver any progress since they began three weeks ago.

Without a breakthrough at the Lucerne talks, UN secretary general Kofi Annan, who wrote the blueprint for reunification, has been authorised to bridge the differences and ask the communities to approve his plan through parallel referendums on 20 April.

The politicians, who have led endless rounds of unsuccessful negotiations in the past, will be sidelined, most notably Rauf Denktash, the president of the breakaway Turkish republic. Known to diplomats as the "dinosaur", he has been the most persistent hurdle to UN proposals.

Mr Denktash has refused to attend the Lucerne meetings, despite his role as chief negotiator, and has instead returned to the rhetoric of the past. "They (the international community) should go and see our martyr cemeteries, talk to our veterans," he said in one outburst after recent talks with the Greek-Cypriot president, Tassos Papadopoulos.

Mr Denktash fears the much richer and more numerous Greek Cypriots will dominate a reunited island, although the UN plan would limit the number of Greek Cypriots who could return to live in the north.

Those on either sides who believe that the patience of the international community is infinite need look no further than the Apostle Andreas monastery.

When the UN Office for Project Services (UNops) stepped in to save the endangered religious sites in 2001, it did so with optimism and nearly £2m in funding from USAid and the UN Development Programme.

"These are extremely important historical and religious monuments that constitute an important part of the heritage of the island," UNops spokeswoman Dominique Larsimont said. "They were both in desperate need of repair and restoration and we decide to take an interest. What followed was long and painful negotiations with both sides.

"In the first year we conducted detailed project studies on both sites. We didn't just go there to make some quick repairs. We drafted in two world respected experts in ancient architecture," she said.

Italian Professor Giorgio Croci was brought in to advise on the Orthodox monastery, while Egyptian Professor Saleh Lamei Mostafa oversaw plans for the mosque.

But the bicommunal project's fate has mirrored the tortured progress of negotiations to settle the future of the island as a whole.

Most of the millions of visitors who pass through Larnaca airport to the Republic's holiday resorts have at least a passing acquaintance with the mosque. Hala Sultan Tekke was built in stages by the Ottomans in the late 18th and early 19th centuries at the burial site of Umm Haram, the aunt of the Prophet.

The buildings and richly inscribed walls of Tekke, which are set in a copse of trees by a salt lake, have suffered from humidity, lack of maintenance and disuse. Efforts to restore and landscape the site have faced delays from all sides, with excavations constantly turning up valuable antiquities.

After nearly £1m's worth of studies and groundwork, the restoration is way behind schedule but the future of the mosque complex is now assured because funding deadlines have been met.

It is the Orthodox monument that has proved a mission impossible for the UN.

The Apostle Andreas monastery is a place of miracles. It is built on the coastal rocks of the Karpas peninsula where Christianity first touched Cyprus. Here, the Apostle Andrew put ashore on his journey from the holy land. According to legend, his footfall revealed a spring whose waters healed the blind ship's captain.

The spring survives to this day, but the monastery has endured a turbulent history of invasion and liberation during which the island has been buffeted by the rise and fall of Christian and Islamic rulers.

Battling the elements and the indifference of the Turkish-Cypriot administration, Apostle Andreas has for years been in danger of sliding into the sea which bore St Andrew in the first century AD.

But UNops's rescue bid was abandoned last month as internal divisions surfaced. In many ways they mirror the divisions in the Greek-Cypriot community that threaten to derail the blueprint for peace.

"It's been incredibly disappointing after all the effort put into it," said Ms Larsimont. "There has been so much work and funds put into this and we're disappointed nothing has come out of it."

The 150-year-old church that flanks the 13th-century chapel of St Andrew through which the sacred spring flows is at the core of the dispute.

Architects assigned to the project were adamant that balconied monastic cells on the first floor of the church would have to be demolished to save the overall structure.

Many, including Fr Georgiou, vehemently opposed the revamp and, after demonstrations late in 2003, work was pushed back so far that the funding deadline was missed. "It needs restoration but we want it to remain as it is," said Fr Georgiou. Asked if the monastery is now doomed, he shrugged and admitted it is now "a matter of time before it falls."

According to one UN source, attitudes are so entrenched that compromise is impossible: "Certain parties have no interest in seeing any progress there. More than anything, they don't want to agree with each other."

The same deep-seated divisions appear in recent opinion polls, which show more than 60 per cent of Greek Cypriots oppose the Annan plan.

The blueprint envisages the reunification of the island as a single state with one Greek- and one Turkish-Cypriot federal region linked through a weak central government.

During years of condemning Turkish-Cypriot intransigence, personified by Mr Denktash, the Greek community has not had to confront its internal disputes over the future of the island. Elections in the Turkish enclave last month, in which support grew for a peace deal and potential EU prosperity, the greatest hurdle could be public opinion on the wealthier and more populous Greek side.

Many members of Mr Papadopoulos's Diko party oppose the Annan plan and he came to power in last year's elections by promising to get a better deal out of the UN-brokered peace process.

Marios Matsakis, a centrist firebrand and Diko deputy, has demanded that the approval threshold in next month's referendum be raised from 51 per cent to 70 or 75 per cent, making a "yes" decision harder to secure. "This is an option we are considering. We think it is only right that for constitutional changes an enhanced majority be secured," Mr Matsakis said.

A short drive from the Apostle Andreas monastery is the last Greek kafeneion in the north. It sits in the square of the village known as Rizokarpas to its Greek residents and Dipkarpas to the Turks. Inside, among plain wooden tables and chairs unchanged since the invasion, the "yes" and "no" camps meet for Greek, or Turkish, coffee.

Christakis Frangoulis, a Greek-Cypriot, remained in his village and has survived on UN-delivered supplies for three decades. "We live in an open prison. If I leave my house for too long, things are stolen. I just want the occupation to end."

Mr Frangoulis was cut off from the south until travel restrictions were eased last year and the north opened up to day-trippers from the south.

One of these is Andreas Argyridis. Born in Rizokarpas, he is now a lawyer living in Larnaca. He argues that the north is now flooded with settlers from the Turkish mainland and that it is unfair to expect the Greek-Cypriot south to pay the price for reunification. "Whatever happens, the solution will be against the interests of the Greek Cypriots," he complained.

Beneath the Turkish flag in the courtyard of Apostle Andreas monastery, Fr Georgiou worries that prosperity has blinded his southern compatriots to the plight of those left behind. "There is a new generation now and we are old and will die out soon. They can leave us here to die," he said.