NICOSIA (Reuters Life!) - Behind the pomp and circumstance of a papal visit, sandbags, abandoned gun positions and a crumbling time warp make up the grim image which will welcome Pope Benedict to Cyprus on Friday, when he visits one of the world’s last divided capital cities.
Benedict does not have a political agenda in visiting Cyprus from June 4-6, but his accommodation at a Franciscan monastery in territory under the jurisdiction of U.N. peacekeeping forces brings a long-standing conflict into sharper focus.
The Roman Catholic Holy Cross Church in the medieval heart of Nicosia still bears scars from the crossfire of ethnic strife and from a Turkish invasion triggered by a Greek inspired coup in 1974.
Wedged between the Greek and Turkish Cypriot sides of the capital, bullet marks are evident on the pale yellow sandstone of its upper levels.
The building lies opposite a United Nations observation post and sandbagged gun positions of opposing forces — now unmanned — and is surrounded on two sides by a derelict corridor of land nobody is permitted to enter.
“We are on a frontier line,” said Father Umberto Barato, Vicar General for Cyprus of the Latin Patriarchate and Attache of the Apostolic Nuncio.
“We have a 150-meter wall around us and we have to put on an alarm every night. It’s not a normal life,” he told Reuters.
He was once severely beaten by assailants who scaled the perimeter wall into the friary adjacent to the Church, though he says the security situation in the area has markedly improved since 2003.
A 180-mile buffer zone splits Cyprus east to west, with Cyprus’s ethnic Greeks living in the south, and its Turks in the north.
Endless rounds of mediation and peace talks have yet to bring an end to a conflict which not only affects Cyprus, but threatens to derail Turkey’s ambitions in joining the EU.
Yet even the U.N. acknowledges the perplexity of the conflict can be exhausting.
“It is not forgotten as far as the UN is concerned, but there is some evidence internationally that there is some kind of fatigue about what is going on in Cyprus because this subject has been going on for so long and it has proved so difficult to achieve a settlement up till now,” said Jose Diaz, the U.N. spokesman in Cyprus.
“We try to keep it on the front burner, as we say, and try to help the sides achieve that settlement.”
In Nicosia, the division has gone on for longer. The first peacekeeping troops were dispatched in 1964 to quell an outbreak of violence in December 1963, three years after independence from Britain.
The dividing line in Nicosia is known as the “green line,” so called because a peacekeeper marked the division on a map using a green felt-tip pen.
It physically splits the capital straight across the middle, possibly making it one of the cities with the highest number of dead ends anywhere.
Holy Cross, one of the few areas of the buffer zone where civilian activity is allowed, abuts two rows of barrels which cut off access to a street overgrown with weeds and trees, and where stucco facades have long crumbled off most buildings still left standing.
“It is a sore sight — painful,” said Father Barato.
“It shouldn’t be like this after more than 35 years. And people should understand, those who count, that this is not possible nowadays. They should find some solution.”
Editing by Steve Addison