Pope Benedict XVI has landed in Cyprus to begin a sensitive, three-day visit to the divided island — just a day after the killing in Turkey of Catholic Bishop Luigi Padovese, who had been scheduled to meet with the pontiff.
At a red-carpet welcoming ceremony at Paphos airport, the pope said he hoped that Cyprus’s divided Greek and Turkish communities could find the “desire for harmony” to reach peace.
“Cyprus is thus an appropriate place in which to launch our Church’s reflection on the place of the centuries-old Catholic community in the Middle East, our solidarity with all the Christians of the region and our conviction that they have an irreplaceable role to play in peace and reconciliation among its peoples,” said the pope.
Cyprus, an island divided between ethnic Turks and Greeks, is viewed by the Vatican as a bridge between Europe and the Middle East. The pope’s visit is expected to be a test of whether the pope has found his diplomatic feet after his linking of Islam to violence during a speech in Germany led to outrage in the Muslim world — and nearly forced the cancellation of a trip to Turkey in 2006.
George Poulides, ambassador of Cyprus to the Holy See, said that the papal visit is already being seen as an historic event on the island nation.
“It is the first time that a pope ever visited Cyprus and the people in Cyprus, the government and the Orthodox Church are really looking forward to the holy father’s visit,” Poulides said.
The pope arrives as sensitive UN-backed peace talks between the two communities hit a serious snag on Thursday and were unexpectedly called-off.
Italian Ambassador to Nicosia, Alfredo Bastianelli, told VOA News that the presence of Pope Benedict will help highlight the division of Cyprus and may even give momentum to the struggling peace talks.
“The fact that he is coming here in any case will give momentum to the Cyprus situation and it will be an important moment for all citizens of Cyprus, not only for the little amount of Catholics here, and frankly there are not very many compared to the Orthodox and people from other religions,” said Bastianelli.
The mood has been somber among much of the clergy on the island after news that a Roman Catholic bishop was stabbed to death Thursday in eastern Turkey.
Sixty-two-year-old Luigi Padovese, the apostolic vicar of Anatolia, was scheduled to arrive on the island to greet the pope Friday.
Director of the Vatican press office, Father Federico Lombardi has said that “peace will be the key” to the trip — the first by any pope to the island and Pope Benedict’s first to a mainly Orthodox country. Most Greek Cypriots are followers of the Greek Orthodox Church, which split with the Roman Catholic Church in the 11th century, but the island has a small Catholic community.
Various Orthodox religious organizations have voiced their opposition to the visit, saying they oppose dialogue between the Orthodox and Catholic churches.
The Vatican confirmed the pope will not be crossing the “Green Line” to visit the mainly Muslim Turkish controlled sector of Cyprus during his visit.
Cyprus has been divided since 1974, when Turkey invaded the northern part of the island in response to a military coup that was backed by the Greek government.
South Cyprus joined the European Union in 2004 and the self-proclaimed Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus is only recognized by Turkey.