INTERVIEW – The small island of Cyprus, isolated in the middle of the Mediterranean Sea and somewhat distant from Jerusalem but still attached to the Diocese, survives the economic and political storms by the union of different churches that pertain to ecumenical dialogue. Father Jerzy Kraj, OFM, Patriarchal Vicar for the Cypriot Latin Catholic community shares some insight.
1 – The crisis that has shaken the United States and Europe has not spared Cyprus. The bailout has serious repercussions. How are Cypriots facing this harsh new reality?
The consequences of the economic crisis are visible in many areas of the social and private lives of Cypriots. First, there are negative effects on employment. Many companies declared bankruptcy or decreased their activity. Many projects have been suspended for lack of funds. Therefore, many workers are left without steady employment. The situation is more distressing in private sector commercial activities. Walking through the streets, you see many closed stores, and the few that remain open are up-market shops that attract customers who have money to spend.
The economic crisis has forced families to change management of their own lives, trying to save as quickly as possible. For example, before the crisis some families who could hire domestic help (often a Philippine, India or Sri Lanka migrant) can no longer do so. The crisis has also affected private education. Our Franciscan School – Terra Santa College – has seen declining enrollments and even the withdrawal of students whose parents cannot pay school tuition.
The crisis has undoubtedly depleted many families’ finances but it has not decreased the spontaneity and joy of living. In bars and restaurants, especially on weekends and during the holidays, seats are occupied. The Mediterranean mentality is somewhat evangelical in this sense: Do not worry too much about the future but work to overcome the consequences of the crisis.
2 – The Orthodox Church very influential in the country and had quickly engaged in the fight against poverty. Is the Catholic Church also involved in the support of the population and, especially the poorest?
The Christian community, along with Government and Municipal institutions, is first in line to support and help the poor of yesterday and today. The Orthodox Church, which has the majority of Church faithful, is the one institution that brings greater financial support to various charitable initiatives. In this area, we do not forget the practical involvement of the minority Maronite and Latin Catholic Church communities. Caritas of Cyprus (Koinonia), chaired by the Maronite Archbishop Yousef Suoeif, endeavors to meet the practical needs of the poorest, but also actively helps them overcome the crisis. During the last meeting of officers and representatives of our parish Caritas, it was deemed that education is the way to help the needy:“Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime.” Caritas of Cyprus concretely supports local and migrant populations. In addition to the material assistance for food, housing and health assistance are important concerns and are offered mainly to foreign workers living in Cyprus.
The economic difficulties faced by the local population and migrants do not obscure the more urgent situations. In almost all parishes, funds and material donations were collected for the Philippines after the November 2013 typhoon. Victims of the war in Syria also receive the same generosity.
3 – Fifty years ago, Pope Paul VI and Patriarch Athenagoras met in the Holy Land. In Jerusalem a meeting is scheduled this year with the Pope Francis and Patriarch Bartholomew I to continue the ecumenical dialogue. Are there any scheduled meetings between Catholics and Orthodox to further advance the unity of our churches?
Cyprus is a small island with a long history of political and religious conflicts. Currently the island is divided between the Greek Christian majority in the south, and the Turkish Muslim minority in the north. The wound of division is great, but even greater is the hope of the political reunification of Cyprus. Together, with diplomatic agreements, a serious dialogue can be established between Christians and Muslims.
The Republic of Cyprus Orthodox majority recognizes and guarantees the rights of the other minority Christian Churches: Maronite, Latin and Armenian. Following the prophetic the meeting of Pope Paul VI and Patriarch Athenagoras fifty years ago in the Middle East, positive signs of ecumenical dialogue abound on our island. For example, during the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, celebrated in January 2014, we had two meetings of ecumenical character: a concert of liturgical songs and hymns sung by the choirs of the four communities. The second meeting was organized by the Orthodox Archbishop Chrysostomos II.
In addition to these “official ecumenical” gestures, we have gestures of fraternal and friendly cooperation between the Christian churches for religious service. Sometimes our priests are invited to celebrate a Catholic funeral in Orthodox and other Christian denominations’ cemeteries. The case of mixed marriages between Orthodox and Catholics are another example of “practical ecumenism.”
Obviously, there are priests and Orthodox believers who do not share the ecumenical spirit and show some hostility towards members of other churches. The road is long and needs prayer and prophetic gestures. I am convinced that the Pope Francis’ visit to Jerusalem and the ecumenical gathering on the occasion of the commemoration of the pilgrimage of Paul VI will bear abundant fruit for our island of Cyprus.
4 – Next May, Pope Francis will arrive in the Diocese – Jordan, Bethlehem and Jerusalem. Will Cypriot Catholics take part in the preparation of this trip?
The announcement of the Pope’s pilgrimage to the Holy Land has filled Christians of Cyprus with joy. All reminisce about the historic visit of Pope Benedict XVI in June 2010. This recent announcement has awakened in some hearts the hope of a future meeting with the Pope in Cyprus.
The preparation for the Holy Land event is linked to the pilgrimage of a group of local Christians who will make a pilgrimage to Rome for the canonization of John XXIII and John Paul II on April 27. The group will consist of some priests and thirty Latin and Maronite faithful to represent all the parishes of the island. The pilgrimage to Rome will allow our community to join in communion with a large ecclesial gathering. I am convinced that participation in the canonization in Rome, the meeting with Pope Francis and the prayers of millions of faithful will strengthen not only the pilgrims, but also the entire Christian community of Cyprus.
Interview by Pierre Loup de Raucourt
Photo slide: Church of Saint Paul’s Pillar in Paphos