NICOSIA – Shortly after arriving in Cyprus, which has been divided for nearly 50 years, Pope Francis told political and civil authorities on the island nation that peace and dialogue must be a priority.

Calling Cyprus “a country geographically small, but historically great,” the pope in his Dec. 2 speech said that through the centuries, the Mediterranean island nation “has not isolated peoples but brought them together.”

It is a place whose borders are the sea, and which is “the eastern gate of Europe and the western gate of the Middle East,” he said, calling Cyprus “an open door, a harbor that unites.”

“Cyprus, as a crossroads of civilizations, has an innate vocation to encounter,” he said.

Pope Francis arrived in Nicosia Thursday, first meeting with priests, religious, deacons, catechists, and members of the Catholic community in Cyprus before holding a private meeting with Cypriot President Nicos Anastasiades and meeting with civil authorities.

Tarnished by decades of conflict and ethnic tension, Cyprus since 1974 has been divided by a so-called “Green Line,” which is the product of a ceasefire agreement implemented after a Turkish invasion of the north of the country following a brief coup led by Greek nationalists. The enduring tensions and division of the island has been dubbed, “the Cyprus problem.”

The “Green Line,” guarded by security officers who request official documentation in order to pass over, bisects the island into the Turkish-controlled north, and the Greek Cypriot south, whose government is the only one recognized by the international community, and which has been an EU member since 2004.

Cyprus, home to a large community of Middle Eastern, African, and other European migrants, is one of the main destinations for incoming migrants and refugees, many of whom enter through the north via Turkey.

Given its small size, the island nation is struggling to process the thousands of requests that continue to come in, and largely lacks the systemic support for those lingering until their asylum requests can be processed.

According to the Asylum Information Database (AIDA), which tracks asylum requests in Europe, there were some 19,660 pending asylum applications in Cyprus in 2020.

This year, the number of new arrivals has risen 38 percent compared with the whole of 2020, making Cyprus, the closest EU country to the Middle East, one of the main entry points for those seeking asylum in Europe.

In his address to civil authorities and the diplomatic corps in Cyprus, the pope pointed to the country’s first president, Makarios III, who was an Orthodox archbishop.

Noting that the word Makarios means “blessed” in Hebrew, Francis said those who are blessed above all are “the poor in spirit, those who have experienced suffered in their lives, those who live in meekness and mercy, all those who without pretense practice justice and are peacemakers.”

When the Beatitudes are lived out, the Gospel “becomes youthful and fills society with fresh hope,” he said, calling the Beatitudes a compass for the faith which “in every latitude indicates the routes that Christians must take in the voyage of life.”

“Precisely from this place, where Europe and the East meet, there began the first great inculturation

of the Gospel on this continent,” he said, and, referring to the natural beauty of Cyprus, said the island has a responsibility to be “a messenger of beauty among the continents.

Calling Cyprus “a pearl of great price in the heart of the Mediterranean,” he noted that just as a pearl is forged over time, “So too, the beauty of this land comes from the cultures which over the centuries have met and blended here.”

“Today too, the light of Cyprus is richly variegated. Many peoples and nations have contributed different shades and tints to this people,” he said, noting that in terms of percentages, Cyprus is hosting more than any other country in the European Union.

In this context, preserving “the multicolored and multifaceted beauty of the whole is no easy thing. As in the formation of a pearl, it takes time and patience; it demands a broad vision capable of embracing a variety of cultures and looking to the future with foresight,” he said.

Pope Francis stressed the need to both protect and support all members of society, particularly minorities, and advocated for “a suitable institutional recognition” to be given to the Catholic agencies that assist migrants and refugees, “so that the contribution they make to society through their activities, particularly their educational and charitable works, can be clearly defined from the legal standpoint.”

Pointing to the coronavirus pandemic and the social and economic crisis it has caused, the pope insisted that recovery and growth will not come through “anxious efforts” to restore what was lost, but will rather come from a common commitment “to promote the recovery of society” through the fight against corruption and “everything that violates the dignity of the person,” such as human trafficking.

Francis then referenced the division of the island, saying that he is praying “for the peace of the entire island.”

Peace is built on dialogue, he said, noting that the path of patient dialogue is not easy, and is often “long and winding, but there is no other way to achieve reconciliation.”

“Let us nurture hope by the power of gestures, rather than by gestures of power,” he said, insisting that “gestures of power, threats of reprisal and shows of force” will only make the problem worse.

Rather, “gestures of détente and concrete steps towards dialogue” is what will carry the peace process forward, he said, and urged leaders to be open to holding a “sincere discussion” on issues such as the concrete needs of the people; an increasing involvement from the international community; the need to protect cultural and religious heritage, and the restitution, if not of property, at least sacred objects confiscated in the ancient conflict.

“Times that seem least favorable, when dialogue languishes, can be the very times that prepare for

peace,” he said, asking that in times of darkness, “may hatred not be allowed to prevail, efforts be made to bind up wounds and to keep in mind the situation of those who have disappeared.”

“For this, dialogue is necessary, to avoid the growth of suspicion and resentment,” he said.

Turning to the Mediterranean, which he said is “now sadly a place of conflicts and humanitarian tragedies,” Francis said it is a sea that belongs to all who border it, “in order to be connected, not divided.”

“Cyprus, as a geographic, historical, cultural and religious crossroads, is in a position to be a peacemaker,” he said, noting that peace is often not achieved by big personalities, but is rather the product of “the daily determination of ordinary men and women.”

“The European continent needs reconciliation and unity; it needs courage and enthusiasm, if it is to move forward,” the pope said, adding, “it will not be the walls of fear and the vetoes dictated by nationalist interests that ensure its progress, nor will economic recovery alone serve to guarantee its security and stability.”

“May we look to the history of Cyprus to see how encounter and welcome have brought forth good fruits that endure,” he said.

Follow Elise Ann Allen on Twitter: @eliseannallen