Pope Francis will set out on his 35th foreign trip on Thursday, travelling first to the island of Cyprus, from Dec. 2 to 4, and then to Greece, Dec. 4 to 6. He is expected not only to put the international spotlight again on one of the major humanitarian crises of our day—migration—but also on the unresolved dispute over the division of Cyprus.
As the leader of the Catholic Church visiting two majority Greek-Orthodox countries, Francis will make every effort during his five-day journey “to strengthen the already good relations between Catholics and Orthodox” and to encourage the tiny Catholic communities in both lands, Bishop Brian Farrell, the secretary of the Pontifical Council for Christian Unity, told America.
In making his third foreign trip this year, Francis is again defying the risks linked to international travel during the coronavirus pandemic, just as he did when he went to Iraq in March and to Hungary and Slovakia in September. Moreover, he is doing it on the eve of his 85th birthday, Dec. 17.
He is expected not only to put the international spotlight again on one of the major humanitarian crises of our day—migration—but also on the unresolved dispute over the division of Cyprus.
In a video message on the eve of the visit, Francis told the Cypriots and Greeks that he comes “in the footsteps of the first great missionaries,” Sts. Paul and Barnabas, to draw on “the wellsprings of fraternity” from the Orthodox churches. He said he is also coming “to drink from the ancient wellsprings of Europe: Cyprus, the outpost of the Holy Land on the continent; Greece, the home of classical culture.”
“Europe cannot ignore the Mediterranean Sea that hosted the spread of the Gospel and the development of great civilizations” and “embraces many peoples.” This sea, he said, “urges us to sail together, and not to split up by going our separate ways,” especially in the face of the Covid-19 pandemic, climate change and people “fleeing from war and poverty, landing on the shores of the continent or elsewhere, and finding not hospitality but hostility and even exploitation.” Many of these migrants and refugees die in the sea that has become “a great cemetery.”
“They are our brothers and sisters,” the pope said.
He concluded his message by telling the Cypriots and Greeks: “I come as a pilgrim to the wellsprings of humanity. I will go to Lesbos again, in the conviction that the sources of a common life will only flourish again in fraternity and integration: together.”
Pope Francis will make every effort during his five-day journey “to strengthen the already good relations between Catholics and Orthodox.”
Pope Francis departs from Rome’s international airport at 11 a.m. on Dec. 2 and will be accompanied by his chief of staff, Archbishop Edgar Peña Parra; the secretary for relations with states, Bishop Paul Gallagher; and three Vatican cardinals—Pietro Parolin, Leonardo Sandri and Kurt Koch. Seventy-seven journalists, television reporters and photographers will travel with him, including America’s Vatican correspondent.
He will arrive at Larnaca International Airport on Cyprus’s southern coast, where he will be given an official welcome before being driven to Nicosia, the divided capital of this beautiful island.
A Divided Island
Francis is the second pope to visit Cyprus. Pope Benedict XVI came in June 2010. Like his predecessor, Francis will experience the division of the island firsthand. The Holy See’s nunciature, where he will reside, is located in the U.N.-protected buffer zone that divides the Greek-Cypriot capital from the capital of the Turkish-Cypriot north. Some 850,000 of the island’s population of 1.26 million are Greek Cypriots, and more than 320,000 are Turks. Most Greek Cypriots are Orthodox Christians, and most Turkish Cypriots are Sunni Muslims.
Cyprus gained its independence from Britain in 1960. Tensions between Greek and Turkish Cypriot communities escalated in the following decade, and following an attempt by Greek Cypriot nationalists, aided by the Greek military junta, to annex the island to Greece in July 1974, Turkey invaded and occupied the northern part of the island.
The Holy See’s nunciature, where he will reside, is located in the U.N.-protected buffer zone that divides the Greek-Cypriot capital from the capital of the Turkish-Cypriot north.
The invasion resulted in death, destruction and the displacement of some 200,000 Greek Cypriots from north to south, and the flight of many Turkish Cypriots from the south to the north. The Turks took over the Orthodox churches in the north and turned some into mosques and others into places of entertainment. They removed icons and destroyed frescoes and mosaics to the dismay of the Cypriot Orthodox Christians. Before Benedict’s visit, the Orthodox archbishop asked the Turkish Cypriot leader in the north to allow Cypriot Christians to restore these churches at their own expense, but his request was rejected.
Following the invasion, Turkey declared the north an independent republic, but no other country in the world recognizes this claim. Cyprus joined the European Union in 2004, and the north is considered to be under illegal occupation according to international law. Today, an estimated 47,000 Turkish troops are based in the north.
International efforts aimed at unifying the island failed, including a major U.N. effort to create a confederation in 2004. The situation worsened last July when Turkey’s President Erdogan called for a two-state solution.
An Ancient Church
Christianity came to this island in 46 C.E. when St. Paul arrived accompanied by the Cypriot Barnabas and preached the Gospel. St. Barnabas is considered the founder of the Cypriot Orthodox Church, and Francis is certain to refer to him in the four talks and homily he will deliver during his visit. Almost 80 per cent of the Cypriot population are Orthodox, and just over 4 per cent (38,000) are Catholic. Another 20 per cent are Sunni Muslims.
On arrival in Nicosia, Pope Francis will go to the Maronite Cathedral of Our Lady of the Graces to address the bishops, priests, women and men religious, catechists and lay representatives of the Catholic community on this island. He will be welcomed by the patriarch of the Maronite Church, the Lebanese Cardinal Béchara Boutros Raï, and the Latin patriarch of Jerusalem, Archbishop Pierbattista Pizzaballa, under whose jurisdiction the Latin rite Catholic community falls.
Christianity came to Cyrpus in 46 C.E. when St. Paul arrived accompanied by the Cypriot Barnabas and preached the Gospel.
After greeting the Catholics, Francis will drive to the presidential palace where President Nicos Anastasiades will welcome him. They will have a private conversation before the pope delivers an address to the republic’s authorities, representatives of the civil society and the diplomatic corps.
Francis’ second day in Cyprus consists of four events: a private meeting with Archbishop Chrysostomos II, the head of the Cypriot Orthodox Church; a visit with the Holy Synod; a Mass in the GSP Stadium in Nicosia; and an ecumenical prayer service with migrants.
He is expected to address the migrant issue in his talk to the authorities in and at the ecumenical prayer meeting. On the eve of his visit, Nov. 29, Cyprus Mail reported that “The government is to seek the European Commission’s permission to suspend asylum applications from those entering the country illegally.” It said it took this decision to address “the spiralling migration issue which has seen the arrival of 10,868 irregular migrants in the first 10 months of 2021, 9,270 of whom illegally crossed the green line.” The government blames Turkey for “taking advantage of human suffering, based on a prescribed and conscious policy, since the vast majority of flows comes from that country.” Other reports claim there are more than 33,000 illegal migrants in the republic.
An AP report on Nov. 25 said a government minister revealed that Francis intends to bring a group of migrants from Cyprus back to the Vatican.
An AP report on Nov. 25 said a government minister revealed that Francis intends to bring a group of migrants from Cyprus back to the Vatican. Reuters, citing an unnamed Vatican source, claims he will bring 50 migrants. A Vatican source told America the group would not return on the plane with Francis but would arrive some time later.
The Cradle of Democracy
On the morning of Dec. 4, Pope Francis will take a short flight from Cyprus to Greece, the cradle of democracy and much of Western civilization. He will receive an official welcome at Athens International Airport and then be driven to the presidential palace for private meetings with the Greek president, Katerina Sakellaropoulou, and Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis before giving a keynote address to the civil authorities of this country of nearly 11 million people and the diplomatic corps.
Eighty-six percent of the Greek population are Orthodox Christians, and Francis will recognize this in the afternoon by visiting the Orthodox archbishop of Athens, Ieronymos II, with whom he already has a good relationship. The two traveled together, with Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I of Constantinople, to the Moira refugee camp on the island of Lesbos in April 2016.
Catholics count for just 1 percent of the Greek population, and from the archbishopric, Francis will drive to the 18th-century cathedral of St. Dionysius in Athens to greet those who serve this tiny flock: bishops, priests, women and men religious, seminarians and catechists. After greeting them, he will return to the nunciature for a private encounter with the country’s Jesuit community.
Catholics count for just 1 percent of the Greek population, and Francis will drive to the 18th-century cathedral of St. Dionysius in Athens to greet those who serve this tiny flock.
On his second day in Greece, Francis will fly from Athens to Mytilene, the capital city of the island of Lesbos, to greet refugees at the “reception and identification centre” on the waterfront. There he is expected to deliver a strong speech on this worldwide humanitarian crisis that has so far encountered much populist and nationalist hostility in Europe and elsewhere and failed to gain the global humanitarian response that is badly needed.
Francis has expressed his admiration for Greece’s great generosity in giving the first asylum to many desperate migrants in recent years (more than 100,000 refugees and over 60,000 asylum seekers are present in Greece today, according to the U.N.C.H.R.). But a lack of solidarity from the European Union countries, indeed refusal from some member states—including Hungary, Poland and the Czech Republic—to accept migrants, is causing Greece to close its borders and use its security forces and coastguard to push back migrants and refugees to Turkey, from where most set out to cross the Mediterranean Sea.
That sea has become “a cemetery,” to use Pope Francis’ term. Nongovernmental organizations and other informed sources estimate that some 20,000 migrants, including children, have drowned over the past 20 years as they tried to cross the sea to Europe in precarious rafts, often provided by human traffickers for a fee. Francis knows the plight of these refugees and migrants, for whom Greece and, to a lesser extent Cyprus, are the gateway to Europe.
Francis sees his visit here as another way to try to get a public opinion in Europe and elsewhere to understand that the greatest humanitarian crisis since World War II requires a global solution.
When he came to Lesbos five years ago, Francis visited the Moira refugee camp, but that confinement structure was burned down, and its occupants were moved to other places. The European Union has helped fund the building of some of the 33 confinement camps, but it has so far been unable to agree on a common, humanitarian-based policy. Several of its 27 member states, driven by populist-nationalist sentiment, have refused to support such a policy, and some have constructed border fences or walls to keep migrants out, as Greece is now intent on doing.
Pope Francis has spoken with many of the European leaders and pleaded with them to find a solution to this humanitarian crisis. He sees his visit here as another way to try to get a public opinion in Europe and elsewhere to understand that the greatest humanitarian crisis since World War II requires a global solution, just as the coronavirus pandemic and climate change crises do.
He is expected to make that case powerfully by word and deed at various stages on this five-day journey on the southern front of Europe.