By Claus Grue*
Facilitating peace requires conviction, political independence and endurance. Add a whole lot of passion and native Cypriot Salpy Eskidjian fits perfectly into that job description. Since she started in 2011 as executive coordinator of the Religious Track of the Cyprus Peace Process (RTCYPP), which is operating under the auspices of the Embassy of Sweden in Nicosia, she has tirelessly – and successfully – sought to engage religious leaders in a dialogue for peace.
“I believe that this country needs to come together regardless of faiths and beliefs. Religious leaders can – and should – play an important role in facilitating peace. Now that we have brought them together, there is hope,” says Eskidjian.
RTCYPP was established “to encourage, facilitate and serve the religious leaders’ dialogue and efforts for religious freedom and peace in Cyprus and to contribute positively and constructively to the Cyprus peace talks,” according to the organization’s website.
Since it was founded in 2009 it has evolved into an active peace-builder based on four pillars: build trust among the religious leaders and communities, promote confidence-building measures, ensure the protection of religious monuments and advocate for the right to access and worship.
“We started as a rather quiet initiative which then really took off in 2011, when regular meetings between religious leaders of Cyprus became a reality and they reiterated their commitment to working together for human rights and peace within the framework of the RTCYPP. We have accomplished significant changes but we still have a long way to go,” explains Eskidjian.
One important issue is the right of access to religious sites and churches and thus to allow people to come and worship and pray in them.
“We´ve seen a lot of red tape to get permissions, which doesn’t foster an atmosphere of co-existence. United religious leaders can be instrumental to change this,” she says.
Backlashes occur, such as further prohibitions and restrictions to the right to worship announced by the Turkish-Cypriot authorities in May this year. Recently the UN Secretary General issued a statement urging both sides to “support the (ongoing) dialogue by ensuring that the trend continues towards full access to worship to the more than 500 churches and other places of worship in the north and the some 100 mosques in the south.”
New initiatives are also launched by RTCYPP, such as “Know your neighbour: Respect one another,” which is an informative and educational programme for the public including state officials, policy makers, clerics and citizens.
“The idea is to enhance people’s knowledge, understanding and respect of each other’s culture, tradition and religion. Respecting each other’s differences contributes to the promotion and protection of freedom and religious belief, which is a fundamental human right,” Eskidjian explains.
In general, she feels that things are moving in the right direction and that the RTCYPP is making a difference for sustainable peace in Cyprus.
“A very important step forward, that we have facilitated, is that the religious leaders now advocate for the rights of each other, and that we have established a common language in the peace dialogue based on the RTCYPP framework” she notes.
“Also, dealing with the past, reconciliation and forgiveness are crucial areas where religious leaders play important roles in order to ensure a sustainable peace,” Eskidjian continues.
Her solid background in advocacy work for the Middle East Council of Churches, the Nordic Churches and the World Council of Churches, her Cypriot heritage and the fact that RTCYPP is supported by Sweden, which has a strong reputation as an independent and peace-facilitating nation, give extra weight to her efforts.
And so does her passion and diplomacy skills.
*Claus Grue is a Communication Consultant for the World Council of Churches.