For first time since war, Greek Cypriots mark Epiphany in ghost town

Wed Jan 6, 2016 9:36am EST
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By Michele Kambas

FAMAGUSTA, Cyprus (Reuters) - For the first time in decades, Greek Cypriots celebrated Epiphany on the northern side of ethnically-split Cyprus on Wednesday, as momentum builds for a possible breakthrough this year in peace talks.

Against the backdrop of abandoned hotels and homes ringed with barbed wire, a robed Greek Orthodox priest tossed a cross into the sea, symbolizing a blessing of the waters, and the baptism of Jesus in the River Jordan.

About fifteen people plunged into the icy waters. In Orthodox tradition, the person who retrieves the cross is blessed.

The east Mediterranean island was ethnically split in a Turkish invasion in 1974, triggered by a brief Greek-inspired coup. Greek Cypriots live in its south and Turkish Cypriots in its north, separated by a ceasefire line monitored by United Nations peacekeepers.

Though Turkish Cypriot authorities have permitted crossings of Greek Cypriots to the north since 2003, religious events by Greek Cypriots have required permission.

In a sign of an improving climate between the two sides which many hope can translate into progress in peace talks, Turkish Cypriot authorities sanctioned the Epiphany celebrations on a beach at Famagusta for the first time since the war.

"This is a very moving moment for me ... our presence here means we haven't forgotten, and we still believe one day we will return," said Greek Cypriot Philippos Yiapanis, one of hundreds who lined a white sandy beach to observe the ritual.

He was 17 when he left Famagusta, a sprawling town on Cyprus's eastern coast. He is now 59, and for most of his life, Cyprus has been divided.   Continued...

A man holds a cross after swimmers plunged into the sea to retrieve it from the water during Orthodox Epiphany day celebrations for the first time in decades, at Famagusta, Cyprus January 6, 2016. REUTERS/Yiannis Kourtoglou