The value of dialogue among religious leaders in Cyprus goes beyond its shores and can become a model for the Middle East and other regions, said Greek Orthodox Bishop Porfyrios of Neapolis and Turkish mufti Dr Talip Atalay. They were speakers at a meeting titled “Interreligious Communication, Freedom of Religion and Peace Building”.
Hosted by the Swedish Mission, the gathering took place as a side event at the United Nations in Geneva on 11 March during the 31st sitting of the Human Rights Council.
Those interested in a solution to the Cyprus problem soon should support such dialogue however they can, said Bishop Porfyrios, who is director of the Church of Cyprus.
“The great value and importance of the dialogue goes beyond the country’s shores and can become a model and an example in the conflagration that has consumed our neighbours in the Middle East for so long,” said the bishop.
Salpy Eskidjian, a former World Council of Churches (WCC) staffer, now executive coordinator for the Office of the Religious Track of the Cyprus Peace Process, moderated the meeting.
Speakers relayed how dialogue between different religious leaders in divided Cyprus has received significant assistance from Dr Heiner Bielefeldt, UN Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion or Belief.
At the meeting, Bielefeldt reiterated remarks in his December 2015 report to the UN Security Council in New York.
“In Cyprus, the enhanced interreligious communication between Christian and Muslim leaders has led to recent breakthroughs, including the re-opening of churches and mosques that had been inaccessible for decades owing to the protracted conflict on the island,” he said.
The UN expert recounted how religious leaders have in some instances cleaned up each other’s places of worship, enabling goodwill and trust.
“Some interreligious encounters in Cyprus have been open to participation beyond the traditional religious communities, including Evangelicals, Baha’is, Buddhists and others, thus building awareness on the further emergence of religious pluralism,” said Bielefeldt.
Porfyrios, representing Church of Cyprus Archbishop Chrysostomos II, explained how dialogue “conducted in a spirit of goodwill, cooperation and sincere intentions” between religious leaders in Cyprus is now in its seventh year.
42 years of negotiations
He said that negotiations around Cyprus had gone on for 42 years between the leaders of the two communities to “reach a settlement of its problem by ending the island’s division and restoring peace”.
“The peaceful coexistence of the Greek Cypriots, Turkish Cypriots, Armenians, Maronites and Latins is not some Utopia but the actual experience of our fathers and ancestors for many decades in our shared homeland.”
“Despite the difficulties…the dialogue among the religious leaders of Cyprus is making a significant contribution to the reconciliation and peaceful coexistence of the legal residents of the island,” said Porfyrios.
Moderator Eskidjian noted that Muslim speaker, Dr Talip Atalay, was the first mufti of Cyprus to establish a working dialogue with the Greek Orthodox Church on the divided island.
“As the mufti of Cyprus I consider myself lucky because of the privilege of being able to stand against all sorts of cruelty and violence together with four different Christian churches,” said Dr Atalay.
“Together, we are standing against any violence whether it is to a mosque or a church.”
Atalay noted: “Achieving a sustainable peace on this island will not only be a political and religious model and example for the neighbouring countries.”
Peter Weiderud, Director at the Swedish Institute Alexandria, Egypt, and also a former WCC staffer noted that dialogue is a necessity, and this can entail engaging in dialogue with people viewed as enemies. “It is with the enemy that we make peace, not with friends,” he said.
“Before this dialogue both the mufti and the archbishop would have seen the other as extremists,” said Weiderud while asserting that inter-religious dialogue is always promoting peace.
“We saw this in Cyprus two weeks ago when we had a burning of a mosque outside Nicosia where the mufti and the archbishop stood up together with a common language to deescalate the tension.
“Ten years ago this would have been a spark that would have set off a major fire,” noted Weidrud.
He argued that freedom of religion and belief can be an excellent opportunity to promote dialogue.
WCC general secretary Rev. Dr Olav Fykse Tveit received Dr Atalay, Bishop Porfyrios, Salpy Eskidjian and Peter Weiderud at the Ecumenical Centre, Geneva, on 11 March 2016.