Pope Francis will embark on his 35th international trip Thursday, as he heads to Cyprus and Greece. Over the course of his five-day tour, the pope will meet with local Catholics, as well as leaders of the Orthodox Churches which account for the majority of local Christians.
Local coverage of the pope’s itinerary has been almost universally positive. Leaders in both countries, civil and ecclesiastical, have emphasized the importance of Francis’ visit and the welcome he will receive.
The tour also presents the pope with an opportunity to highlight two of his most cherished personal priorities: ecumenism, and the migrant crisis which continues to dominate European politics.
But it may prove hard for the pope to stand in solidarity with local Christians, and with the poorest migrants in Cyprus and Greece, without acknowledging the role of Turkey in both issues.
The actions of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s government are criticized by diplomats and humanitarian campaigners across Europe, and many will scrutinize the pope’s public remarks from Cyprus, to see if he echoes their concerns.
Some observers will be especially interested to see what reference Francis makes to the militarized divide running through Nicosia, the island’s capital city.
The Republic of Cyprus is a member state of the European Union, but the island, and its capital city, have been divided since the 1960s, and the northern parts of both the island and the capital under occupation since the Turkish invasion of 1974.
On Wednesday, the apostolic nuncio to Cyprus, Archbishop Tito Yllana, said the papal visit would be a tangible contribution to achieving national unity by highlighting the fundamental unity of the people of the island, across the political divide.
“Everyone is waiting for the pope, all over the country,” the nuncio said, noting the island’s majority Christian population. “The people at large want unity and one nation, something to which the Holy Father’s visit could greatly contribute.”
But, even with much goodwill, addressing the status of the occupied territories is an uncomfortable diplomatic third-rail for any world leader to grasp — only Turkey recognizes the legitimacy of its dependent government and President Erdogan has repeatedly rejected UN proposals for reunification.
For Cypriots, the partition literally divides families. And for Christians on the Turkish side of the line, the issue is omnipresent, and many will be hoping to hear words of encouragement from the pope as they struggle to practice their faith.
A 2019 report commissioned by the UK government on the persecution of Christians around the world highlighted the plight of Christians living in occupied Cyprus.
The independent report noted that “access for worship to the historic Orthodox and Maronite [Catholic] churches in the area is severely restricted (only once a year if specific permission is granted in many cases) and even in the small number of churches where regular Sunday services are permitted intrusive police surveillance is complained of.”
“Services may occasionally be closed down by force and the congregation evicted without notice,” the report said. “Other churches are able to worship weekly but also complain of intrusive police surveillance. Many historic churches and associated cemeteries in the area have also been allowed to fall into disrepair, be vandalized or converted to other uses,” often as mosques.
The treatment of Christians in occupied Cyprus is mirrored increasingly by the hostility of the Erdogan government to Christians in Turkey itself. Last year, the president decreed that the basilica of Hagia Sophia be re-converted into a mosque, rolling back the former mother church of Eastern Christianity’s previously neutral designation as a heritage site and museum.
As the pope visits with migrants in both Cyprus and Greece, most of whom have arrived in truly desperate circumstances, it will also be hard for him to ignore the role of Turkey in their circumstances.
Erdogan has been accused of using the millions of displaced Syrians in his country as pawns, to secure billions of euros in funding from the EU, threatening to open the border with Greece and push through a million or more people into the country. At the same time, human rights campaigners have accused the EU of essentially trying to use a deal with Erdogan to outsource their moral obligation to welcome in those displaced by the horrors of war.
Meanwhile, the Turkish government has been accused of discriminating against Christian refugees in its allocation of the billions in funding already sent by the EU, allowing the harassment of Christians in refugee camps and making it harder for them to access work, education, and medical assistance.
Pope Francis will have a lot to say in Greece and Cyprus. He’ll certainly have messages and exhortations for Europe.
But whether the will also face east, and talk to Turkey, remains to be seen.