NICOSIA, Cyprus – Pope Francis arrives in Nicosia on Thursday, for what the government of Cyprus says constitutes an historic event. During the trip, the pontiff will celebrate Mass at a sports stadium, meet with refugees and immigrants and conduct talks with President Nicos Anastasiades.

In an interview with Crux, Cypriot Foreign Minister Nikos Christodoulides says the visit reaffirms the strength of modern day ties between Cyprus and the Holy See, based on solid historic foundations.

Christodoulides also speaks about migration flows, describing Cyprus as a “front-line State” and details efforts to identify and repatriate cultural objects illegally exported from Cyprus.

Crux: What does the government hope to achieve by this Papal visit?

Christodoulides: Any Papal visit is an important event and achievement in its own right. The upcoming visit of Pope Francis comes 11 years after the visit of Pope Benedict in 2010, whilst in the meantime; President Anastasiades has visited the Vatican and met with the Pope twice, in 2014 and 2019.

This visit, which coincides with the upgrading of the diplomatic presence of the Holy See in Cyprus, provides an excellent opportunity to discuss a number of issues of mutual interest and concern, including the promotion of peace, security and cooperation in the broader region of the Eastern Mediterranean and the Middle East, the efforts to resume talks with a view to a comprehensive settlement of the Cyprus problem in a way that will reunite the island on the basis of a bizonal bicommunal federation as prescribed by the relevant UN Security Council resolutions, the support and protection of historic Christian communities in this often troubled region, and the need to address in a holistic manner the migration crisis and the unprecedented pressures created by the systematic instrumentalisation of human suffering by certain actors in the region.

The visit will also serve to send a message of fraternity between the Greek Orthodox Church of Cyprus and the Catholic Church, whilst at the same time it will of course constitute a moment of paramount importance for the historic Catholic communities of Cyprus, the Maronites and the Latins, as well as for all Catholic migrants that live and work in Cyprus.

The question of migration is affecting Europe right now – it is an issue that will be discussed between the Holy Father and President Nicos Anastasiades.  How would you describe the challenges Cyprus faces?

Cyprus has from the outset of the crisis been a front-line State when it comes to the migration flows towards Europe, and in recent years has additionally been faced with significant challenges emanating from the systematic instrumentalization of the human suffering of migrants by Turkey. As a result, Cyprus is now for the fifth year running the EU Member State receiving the highest number of first-time asylum applicants per capita, with their number currently making up 4 percent of the country’s population.

Despite all the efforts undertaken by our authorities, as you can appreciate it is extremely difficult for a small island State like Cyprus to cope with such unprecedented pressures. We look towards our partners in the EU for more concrete and substantial solidarity to front-line States in this respect. At the same time, more pressure needs to be exerted on Turkey to fulfil its obligations vis-a-vis all EU Member States without discrimination, and to undertake all necessary efforts to deter irregular migration towards the EU in accordance with the EU-Turkey Statement.

In this context, we are particularly appreciative of and welcome the will expressed by His Holiness, on the occasion of His visit and recognizing the disproportionate pressure that Cyprus is under, to relocate 50 applicants for international protection to the Vatican. It is a gesture full of symbolism and solidarity, which shows understanding for the dire situation in which Cyprus finds itself in.

You will discuss the protection of cultural heritage with the Holy Father. Is this a particular problem for Cyprus?

In Cyprus, the 1974 Turkish invasion and the continuing occupation has caused, apart from the loss of human lives and the uprooting of a large percentage of the population, massive destruction to the cultural heritage of the island. Turkey continues to this day to flagrantly ignore international law and its obligations stemming international treaties relating to the protection of cultural heritage.

Destruction is still recorded in all types of cultural heritage, both tangible and intangible.  Museums have been looted, as has a large number of private collections.  Religious monuments have also been looted and in some cases even demolished. Icons and sacred objects have been stolen, frescoes and mosaics were destroyed or violently removed and in many cases have been traced in illegal antiquities trade markets and in auctions around the world.

According to the records, it is estimated that more than 20,000 religious icons have been stolen and more than 550 churches and their cemeteries have been looted. Moreover, it is known that many churches are currently used as mosques, stables, military bases, workshops, warehouses, parking lots, hotels, nightclubs etc. Apart from the religious monuments, archaeological sites have also been completely destroyed, while others remain unprotected, neglected and easy prey for looters.

The Government of Cyprus in cooperation with the Church of Cyprus is working hard to identify and repatriate cultural objects illegally exported from Cyprus. We are also adopting measures aiming at the mitigation of illicit trafficking and looting in cooperation with INTERPOL with a digital archive of photos and other information concerning Ancient Monuments and movable objects in the occupied areas. Another important step in the fight against trafficking and illegal export of antiquities is our policy to conclude Memoranda of Understanding with several countries such as the United States America, China, Switzerland, Egypt, Greece, Jordan, Russia, Israel, the Palestinian Authority, Georgia and Bulgaria. We also take action in the context of our participation in the UN, the Council of Europe and UNESCO whilst Cyprus has played an instrumental role for the conclusion of the Council of Europe’s Convention on Offences relating to Cultural Property (also known as “the Nicosia Convention”), which opened a new perspective, in the effort to promote the protection of cultural heritage.

You will brief the Holy Father on the latest developments in the Cyprus problem. Are there reasons to be optimistic about any possible future dialogue?

First of all, let me express our sincere appreciation for the support expressed on every occasion by His Holiness to the solution of the Cyprus problem and the reunification of the island. This is of utmost importance against the backdrop of the position advocated publicly by Turkey and the Turkish Cypriot side for a “two state” solution that would amount to the permanent division of Cyprus.

Unfortunately, the prospects for the revival of the negotiations for the solution of the Cyprus problem are quite pessimistic due to the aforementioned stance of Turkey and its overall aggressive behavior in sharp contravention of international law. The informal meeting in Geneva in April 2021 and the recent meeting in New York in September between the UNSG and the leaders of the two communities were unfortunately met with the negative attitude of the Turkish side, which chose to undermine all possibilities for a breakthrough.

Despite these difficulties, we maintain our commitment and decisiveness to continue and to redouble our efforts in the period ahead. The only way forward is a solution within the framework of the established UN parameters, international law and the principles upon which the EU is founded.

At the same time it is imperative to ensure full adherence of Turkey to international law with regard to the EEZ of Cyprus and in Varosha and that illegal activities are reversed in accordance with the decisions of the UN Security Council.