x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 22 January 2018

Cyprus prepares for first papal visit

Visit brings joy for Roman Catholics and new migrants from the Philippines, but is controversial for some Orthodox figures.

Pope Benedict XVI looks at a book he received as a gift from Cypriot President Tassos Papadopoulos, left, during a private audience at the Vatican in November.
Pope Benedict XVI looks at a book he received as a gift from Cypriot President Tassos Papadopoulos, left, during a private audience at the Vatican in November.

NICOSIA // Pope Benedict XVI on Friday will become the first pontiff to visit Cyprus, home to tiny, centuries-old Maronite and Roman Catholic communities and boosted in recent years by migrant workers mostly from the Philippines and Sri Lanka. All are ecstatic.

"I am speechless. I wish I can touch him, I can hug him," said Scarlet Tugbo, 38, a Filipina. The Pope was invited by the president, Demetris Christofias, and Archbishop Chrysostomos II, the head of the island's independent Orthodox Church. The visit gives Cyprus, a predominantly Orthodox Christian country, the opportunity to bask in the international limelight. For the Pope it is primarily a cherished pilgrimage. He will retrace the steps of St Paul the apostle, who preached on the island in AD 47.

It is also a chance to meet his small Catholic flock there. And he will prepare prelates from Catholic churches across the Middle East for a forthcoming synod in Rome on the issue of Christians in the region. Antonis Skoullos, an active member of the Maronite Catholic community, said most of his Greek Cypriot Orthodox friends were excited by the event, viewing the Pope as a headline-grabbing, international figure and celebrity rather than a spiritual leader.

"We have a proverb in Greek that says: 'What, you've been to Rome and you didn't see the Pope?'" Mr Skoullos, 47, an IT expert, said. "It means you can't go somewhere and miss the main attraction. Now the Pope is coming here!" Yet the three-day visit has generated a lively controversy - and the church and state are determined that a vocal minority does not upset the show. The influential bishop of Limassol, Athanasios, branded the Pope a "heretic" last week, tapping into doctrinal and theological differences dating nearly a millennium.

"We love the Pope, we love his followers like we do all people ? but we do not accept heresy or the wrong faith," the bishop told Phileleftheros newspaper. "He [the Pope] has been outside the Church for 10 centuries now." The Orthodox and Catholic churches went their separate ways in 1054 when they mutually excommunicated each other in what is known as the Great Schism. Both excommunications were lifted in 1965 and officials from the two churches have been engaged in recent years to heal the rift.

But opposition to reconciliation still lingers in some Orthodox quarters. The main disagreement, now as in the 11th century, is over papal authority. Five Orthodox bishops are planning to boycott the red-carpet welcoming ceremony for the Pope, Phileleftheros reported. Immediately, Archbishop Chrysostomos moved to quell the dissent. "People can think what they like but that does not mean offending a guest." He warned that any bishop who boycotts the welcoming ceremony could face a year's expulsion from the Holy Synod, the Church's ruling body, which had agreed to the Pope's visit.

"I will receive him [the Pope] with love and respect," the archbishop said in an interview. He has also expressed concern that dissenting clergy could encourage fringe Orthodox elements to cause trouble during the papal visit. Members of two dissident groups have called for the Pope's arrest in Cyprus for his alleged "cover-up" of paedophile crimes by Catholic priests. The archbishop said local Orthodox "extremists" who may be planning protests numbered just some 30 people "and our [Greek Cypriot] population is 750,000".

Cyprus police said that although they are aware of possible protests - and security will be very tight to ensure there are no incidents - there had been no credible threats to the Pope's safety. The Holy Synod released a circular read out in all churches that called on the faithful to "remain calm" and "turn a deaf ear to whichever calls by irresponsible elements for protests or ugly incidents during the Pope's upcoming visit".

The circular also rejected criticism that the papal visit could endanger the Orthodox faith. In recent years, Cyprus's Orthodox Church has been active in building bridges with the Catholic Church and, symbolically, the Pope's visit will help such reconciliation. Archbishop Chrysostomos will join the Pope in ecumenical prayers on Friday at a site in Paphos where legend has it that St Paul was lashed at a pillar by a Roman governor.

But the archbishop said rumours that he would sign a theological agreement with the Pope were untrue: theological dialogue remained the responsibility of a joint Catholic-Orthodox theological committee. mtheodoulou@thenational.ae