Sunday, 20 April 2014

Historic Easter church service in Famagusta gives hope to Cyprus


A church in Famagusta held its first Easter Mass in nearly 60 years. Hundreds of Greek Cypriots crossed the Green Line on Good Friday to attend the ceremony at St. George Exorinos in North Cyprus.

Preparations had started at 5.30am with volunteers arriving early to decorate the church in the Orthodox tradition, using flowers to create a symbolic body of Christ. By the time the three-and-a-half hour ceremony started at 5pm, thousands of people had arrived, including many locals and foreign ambassadors who wanted to witness the historic event.

Good Friday is one of the holiest dates in the Orthodox calendar and the service was the first in the town since 1957. The EOKA-inspired troubles had resulted in island-wide inter-communal violence and forced the two ethnic sides apart. Friday’s historic ceremony was warmly greeted by civic and political leaders on both sides as a significant step towards the peaceful reconciliation of Cypriots.

Bishop Vassilis, wearing robes embroidered with gold and white, was accompanied by Dr Talip Atalay, the Turkish Cypriot Mufti. In accordance with orthodox traditions, Vassilis first led a night time procession around the gardens of the 14th century church in Famagusta's medieval walled city, which had been lit by candles.

Crowds of worshippers pressed around as the bishop delivered a mass urging reconciliation on the divided island. After the service, both Vassilis and Atalay spoke of the peace that could be accomplished through religion, saying the Famagusta service was a testament to that. Pavlos Iacovou, who helped organise the service, described the mass in the Turkish North as, “like a miracle”.

The mass was attended by some three thousand people including former Greek Cypriot leader George Vasiliou, AKEL leader Andros Kiprianu, the UN Secretary-General’s Special Cyprus Advisor Lisa Buttenheim and a host of other Greek Cypriot politicians. They were joined by the American, British, Irish, Italian, Portuguese and Dutch ambassadors to Cyprus, along with various MPs from the Republican Turkish Party (CTP) and Famagusta City Council leader Oktay Kayalp who was instrumental in helping to make the service possible.

Famagusta City Council leader Oktay Kayalp
After the mass, Kayalp said: “This is an important day for Christians and for it to be celebrated in a church in Gazimağusa meant a lot of attention for this symbolic event. Although there are differences between the two sides, it showed the world we can treat each other with tolerance.” He added that he hoped a similarly successful event can be held for Turkish Cypriots in the South.

A massive security operation had been organised with some 450 Turkish Cypriot police and ambulance crew on duty. The event passed peacefully, although a group of people calling themselves the “Young Freedom Fighters” held up a banner bearing the faces of Turkish Cypriots who had been killed in Famagusta by Greek Cypriots between 1963 and 1974 and condemned the Turkish Cypriot authorities for allowing the service.

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