NICOSIA (Reuters) - For the first time in more than half a century, a church in northern Cyprus will host Good Friday mass in a sign of a thaw in relations between Greek and Turkish Cypriots.
Off limits to Greek Cypriots for 58 years, the Church of St. George Exorinos in the medieval city of Famagusta will host a liturgy on what is one of the most important religious dates in the Greek Orthodox calendar.
Alexis Galanos, the Greek Cypriot mayor-in-exile of the sprawling coastal city now on the Turkish Cypriot side of the divided island, hopes it can be a precursor to lasting peace.
Galanos joined with Turkish Cypriot counterpart Oktay Kayalp to organize the event that is expected to draw about 4,000 people.
“It gives a message of reconciliation and cooperation of Greek and Turkish Cypriots throughout Cyprus, and particularly for a reunified Famagusta,” said Galanos.
An ancient port city which inspired Shakespeare’s tragedy “Othello”, Famagusta was once the Mediterranean island’s premier coastal resort.
Liturgies at St. George Exorinos stopped before Cyprus gained independence from Britain in 1960, after clashes between Greek and Turkish Cypriots broke out.
Compounding the isolation, major incidents erupted in late 1963 when the Turkish Cypriots pulled out of a power-sharing government, and many Turkish Cypriots withdrew into enclaves prompting the deployment of U.N. peacekeepers, who remain today.
Some 45,000 Greek Cypriot Famagusta residents then fled advancing Turkish troops in 1974, when Turkey invaded in response to a brief coup by Greek Cypriot hardliners seeking to unite the island with Greece.
Leaders of the two sides have resumed peace negotiations, after many rounds of so far fruitless talks.
Many Greek Orthodox churches in the north were abandoned, some were turned into mosques, many are simply not used. St. George Exorinos has opened for Greek Orthodox morning mass on two occasions since last December.
Editing by Michael Roddy and Alison Williams