While their politicians grumble about how to re-unify the island divided since an unlawful Turkish invasion in 1974, Cypriots and their Turkish counterparts are coming together to restore churches and mosques and try to find a different kind of resolution.
Their work, the New York Times noted in a piece about their efforts, is an attempt to put a painful past behind them even though reminders abound everywhere, from the Green Line that divides the capital of Nicosia, to barbed wire and Turkish troops surrounding still-occupied territories in the northern third of the island.
Peace talks that had been stalled for two years after hard lines brought them to a halt are about to start again, with Cypriot President Nicos Anastasiades, elected almost a year ago, hoping he’ll have better luck talking to Turkish-Cypriot leader Dervis Eroglu, who’s been unwilling to make any concessions.
A focal point for unity is the village of Kontea, where the church of St. Charalambos in this tiny village was a gathering place for all before falling into disrepair and used in the four decades said the troubles.
Local people – Cypriots and Turks together – worked to renovate and re-open the facility while political leaders remain at odds and have barely been able to look at each other.
“Like the church, relations between the two communities had crumbled after the island was partitioned after the Turkish military invasion of 1974,” the Times noted. But now skilled workers from both communities are bringing back the church and across the island there are some 40 similar projects, with Cypriots helping restore mosques too.
After two years of work, craftsmen from both communities hurriedly polished the church in time for a grand rechristening that united nearly 500 Greek and Turkish Cypriots in a celebration under its lofty vaults — the first time the church had been used in 40 years.
“After all this time, the people are ready to reconcile,” Xenios Konteatis, 79, a retired Greek Cypriot who lived in Kontea before the Turkish invasion forced his family into a tearful flight to what is now the Greek-controlled south told The Times.
“Of course there are still a lot of painful memories,” added Mr. Konteatis, who must drive past Turkish guards and barbed wire to reach the village, where his former home remains occupied by Turkish settlers. “But we have the will to come together.”
Many agree. “We cannot accept that in the 21st century, when Europe has been united after two bloody world wars, and when apartheid has been abolished in South Africa, that Cyprus is a country still divided,” said Theofilos Theofilou, a Greek Cypriot who helps run the Committee on Missing Persons with a Turkish counterpart investigating the hundreds of Greek and Turkish Cypriots who disappeared in the conflict.
It’s a long way from fixing churches and mosques to finding a solution to end the separation though, especially with only Turkey recognizing what it calls a Republic in the land it still controls.
An answer has eluded a slew of officials, including from the international community and recently led the United Nations’ envoy, Alexander Downer, to walk away from even trying anymore. But there are hopes that places like Kontea could change attitudes and instill hope.
“Kontea represents a genuine grass-roots effort to find a common purpose,” John M. Koenig, the American Ambassador to Cyprus told The Times. “It’s an inspiring story, and more of them are happening.”
East of Kontea, Turkish Cypriots in the port city of Famagusta have joined with displaced Greeks to demand the opening of Varosha, a once-glittering beach resort that lured Elizabeth Taylor and other stars. Today, it has decayed into a veritable ghost city under barbed wire and the rifle points of Turkish troops.
Any renewal would hinge on a breakthrough in peace talks. But locals are busying themselves with plans to turn Varosha into an ecological city in the hope of spurring economic development.