No children to hear the village bell

European Times Kormakiti, Northern Cyprus
THERE ARE no children left in Kormakiti. The village school closed last year, after its solitary pupil left. Barely 100 elderly residents remain: Kormakiti is waiting to die. Yet until 25 years ago this dusty village in the foothills of Northern Cyprus was a thriving community, home to a Christian minority that had lived undisturbed for seven centuries.

"Only the young are left now: 70 to 100-year-olds," laughs the village priest, Father Antony Terzi. "I'm one of the youngest." Fr Antony is 92: he was ordained a lifetime ago, in 1931, and his black cassock has long faded to a rusty brown in the Cypriot sun. He will almost certainly be the last Maronite priest in Northern Cyprus.

The local church of St George's seems absurdly large for the tiny community that remains. But every Sunday it is crammed with 400 worshippers. Most of Cyprus's Maronites have moved long ago to the Greek-Cypriot half of the divided island, but every Sunday they cross back to celebrate Mass in their ancestral village, braving the indignities and restrictions of crossing the Green Line.

Like so much of Cyprus, Kormakiti fell victim to the bitter fighting between the island's Greek and Turkish communities. When the Turkish army invaded and partitioned the island in 1974, Kormakiti found itself stranded in the Turkish North. "We're prisoners of war," says Fr Antony. "We're enclosed by Turkey."

The Maronites are an ancient Middle Eastern Christian sect, better known for their part in the civil war that tore Lebanon apart. But in Cyprus they had no part in the violence, and the villagers are careful to stress the differences between themselves and their Lebanese brethren. They have led a distinct cultural life since their ancestors arrived on the island in the twelfth century, seeking protection from the then Catholic rulers, and speak their own dialect, a mix of Arabic and Greek.

The Kormakiti Maronites say they are the victims of circumstance, rather than discrimination. "I'm very satisfied with the North Cypriot government," Fr Antony nods approvingly.

It was the ageing priest himself who negotiated on behalf of Kormakiti with the invading Turkish army in 1974.

"A commander came to me here in the church and asked what I wanted from him," says Fr Antony. "I asked for three things: liberty to ring the bell, liberty to circulate freely around Northern Cyprus, and no trouble when we were holding services. He agreed, and told me, `Yours is the only bell that will be rung in Northern Cyprus'."

The North Cypriot government has made further concessions, exempting the Maronites from military service. The Maronites are Catholics, and Fr Antony says the village is safeguarded by the Pope's personal protection.

But Kormakiti is still slowly emptying. The Maronites teach their children in Greek, but there are no Greek secondary schools in the Turkish North. Young Maronites have migrated south, or away from Cyprus altogether, in search of an education.

Inevitably, there have been indignities for the Maronites. The Northern government has changed the name of their village to Korucam, part of a policy of Turkification. While the villagers are free to travel, visitors returning from the south are subject to strict controls.

For years, Fr Antony has visited a handful of Maronite families living in two neighbouring villages. But now he is too old. The authorities allow a Maronite priest to cross from the South to help him for three days each week, but when Fr Antony asked if a junior priest could move to the North permanently, the Turkish Cypriot authorities refused. It seems unlikely that they will allow a successor to take Fr Antony's place.

Justin Huggler