“Religious trail” promoting dialogue for unity in Cyprus

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The Cypriot conflict is not religious but political. And yet, religion is instrumentalized and misused in this context. This is underlined in an interview with Vatican Radio by Salpy Eskidijan, the founder of “Religious Track”, an initiative that has brought together religious leaders in Cyprus for ten years so that they can be taken seriously as a voice in the process of peace.

By Christine Seuss

It was Pope Francis’ desire to meet the Religious trail Group during its visit to Cyprus in early December. During this meeting, he encouraged the members of the group to continue their work of peacebuilding and reconciliation with the involvement of the leaders of the various religious communities in the country.

Understanding the dynamics

It all started with the 2004 referendum in which the two island communities were called to vote on a settlement based on a plan drawn up by Kofi Annan for the reunification of Cyprus. However, the Greek south, in particular, clearly rejected the plan, with around 76 percent of eligible residents (Greek Cypriots) in the south voting against, while a majority in the Turkish-occupied northern part (65 percent ) voted in favor. Regardless of the outcome of the vote, the southern part of the island became a full member of the EU on May 1, 2004. But why did the southern Cypriots so clearly vote against the plan that would have ended legal insecurity and the de facto division of the island? This question was on Salpy Eskidijan’s mind both as the vote approached, when the population’s reservations were already clear, and afterwards. She was working at the World Council of Churches at the time, when Cyprus was part of her portfolio, and she was called upon to prepare a recommendation for the World Council of Churches on the position the inter-church body should officially take on the issue. question. So, she recalls, during a conversation with Christine Seuss of Vatican Radio, she went through the 80-page draft treaty, encountering several points that made her think.

Listen to the interview with Salpy Eskidijan

Identify the stakeholders

An important idea in peace research is to identify the stakeholders who should be involved in the process from the start. But no one at the time thought of involving the Church: “And it was shocking to me to find that neither the Church of Cyprus nor the religious representatives had been involved, that no one had them. spoken, neither individually nor in a group. . We always say that, if you are not at the negotiating table, or somehow involved, consulted or heard by those in the lead, then it is no surprise that you are not. don’t trust the deal. “

The majority of the Orthodox Church in Cyprus, including the bishops, voted “no”, indeed, more than that, Orthodox religious leaders also urged the faithful to vote “no”. Those who were in favor of the treaty, or who voted yes, did not make it known publicly, Eskidijan later found out.

Likewise, the majority of women also voted no, the experts later analyzed. “Why? Because they weren’t part of it!” was Salpy Eskidijan’s laconic response. They just hadn’t seen the things they cared about in the deal, and they didn’t sufficiently understand the political and economic maneuvers it contained. Because officials had made a serious mistake here, the enterprising peacemaker points out: “Another shocking realization was that there was an assumption that the peace deal should only be accepted by the two leaders and then trickle down by the high and reconciliation would be This is not the way to achieve national reconciliation. No peace deal will ever bring absolute justice to both sides, because compromises have to be made. “

The role of faith-based institutions

However, with “all due respect” to the diplomatic efforts at the highest level in track number 1, there have been no concrete consultations and deliberations flanking other “tracks” such as non-governmental organizations or civil society, particularly faith-based institutions, religious leaders and communities, as Eskidijan notes, provide insight into the language and procedures of international peacebuilding agreements. At the time in question, civil society in all its different formations was also far from being as organized as it could be today, she underlines.

“Religions and religious representatives have been sidelined, and you can imagine where that has led.” However, the Cypriot conflict is not a religious conflict, says Salpy Eskidijan. “It is a political conflict, yes, but religion is a victim in this process and religious freedom is not fully respected. And that must also be taken into account.”

This becomes especially clear when religious communities are deprived of goods that are given to others – as has happened in the case of many churches and mosques or other places of worship. “You can’t just say ‘ok, I’m going to donate a church to a theater company, or turn it into a warehouse. [room] or a stable, or a mosque in a cultural center, a museum, or lock it up, just because you think you can ”. If anything, you need to at least make sure that religious communities are involved. “

The need to build trust

For example, she said, it was particularly bad for residents who had been displaced from their villages to have their cemeteries abandoned and no longer maintained – to the point that bones were sticking out from graves … “The places of worship and cemeteries are considered sacred to the faithful and cannot be desecrated or allowed to perish. The peace process can no longer ignore it as this becomes an obstacle to building trust. Fail to respect what is sacred to a community is like disrespecting it. Ignoring this and religious leaders only hurt the process. In 2004, we noticed that not only religious leaders or religious communities were not engaged in the process. peace process, neither by the local population nor by the international community, but also that in the recent history of Cyprus, the Christian and Muslim religious leaders of Cyprus had not gathered at the same table to talk and work together. “

It was therefore clear that action had to be taken, underlines Eskidijan, who received the support of the Swedish embassy in Nicosia and the social democratic religious of Sweden. Not only because of its links with Sweden, but because Sweden, as a neutral ground without a colonial past in Cyprus, as a country which defends international law and human rights, could provide a neutral framework in which confidence could grow. “Religious Trail” was actually the initiative’s working title, in reference to “Political Trail One,” Eskedijan admits, but in the end, she just kept the name. Although the Religious Trail is interfaith, “theological questions are not addressed here”, explains the peace activist.

A space to nurture peacebuilding

“It is a space where religious leaders come together to discuss peace and reconciliation, to discuss whether they identify with each other enough to bear common witness and defend religious freedom.” At first things went very slowly and many setbacks had to be overcome, says Eskidijan. She, the granddaughter of Orthodox Armenian migrants, remembers the early years and adds: “As Pope Francis said during the meeting with the migrants in Nicosia, it takes a lot of patience, and we also had to be very patient. slow process without much spectacle. Sometimes it seems to take one step forward and two steps back … “In the meantime there has been clearly visible progress, for example, religious leaders have already issued joint statements on the Cyprus question, on the violence against women, on missing persons (a big problem in Cyprus, after the clashes between Turkish and Greek Cypriots years ago) and on the need for dignified treatment of migrants, among others. The most important is that they defend the rights of others and defend religious freedom for all.

But much remains to be done, believes the enterprising activist, who nevertheless prefers to prepare the ground for religious leaders to formulate their own joint declarations and actions. “I believe passionately in what I do, but that’s what the religious leaders have made their own. They are doing it, and they are doing it together. For the first time in modern Cyprus history, we are witnessing a witness common, she said, a witness who also captured international attention thanks to the Pope’s visit and his attention to the country’s concerns.

Background information

Salpy Eskidijan Weiderud has been the Executive Director of the Office of the Religious Component of the Peace Process in Cyprus (“Religious Track”) since 2012. After a quiet start, since 2009 the Religious Track has grown into an active four-based peacebuilding initiative. pillars: knowing and building trust between religious leaders and respective religious communities; promote confidence-building and reconciliation measures; advocate for the right of free access to churches, mosques and monasteries; and ensure the protection of all religious monuments in Cyprus.





Salpy Eskidjian and Christine Seuss from Vatican Radio in Cyprus

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