Pope Francis speaks out on healing the divide between Catholic and Orthodox churches

Pope Francis lamented centuries of hostility and prejudice that have divided Catholics and Orthodox as he met the head of the Greek Orthodox Church in Cyprus on Friday and highlighted charities as a way to help bridge the gap gulf between the Catholic West and the Orthodox East.

Archbishop Chrysostomos II received Francis for private talks in his residence, then invited the Pope to the brand new Saint Barnabas Orthodox Cathedral for a meeting with the Holy Synod, the highest decision-making body of the Greek Orthodox Church .

Sitting in front of the golden iconostasis, or altar, and while the Orthodox clergymen sang, Francis lamented the “wide furrows” that history had carved between Catholics and Orthodox as a result of the millennial schism, when God wanted all united Christians.


Pope Francis, left, listens to Archbishop Chrisostomos during a ceremony at the Apostolos Barnavas Orthodox Cathedral in Nicosia, Cyprus, Friday, December 3, 2021.
(AP Photo / Alessandra Tarantino)

“Centuries of division and separation have made us assimilate, even unintentionally, hostility and prejudice towards each other, preconceived ideas often based on scarce and distorted information, and propagated by aggressive and controversial literature,” François said. “It also makes the path of God crooked, which is straight and directed towards harmony and unity.”

He said that concrete joint works of charity, education and efforts to promote human dignity can help Catholics and Orthodox “to rediscover our fraternity, and the communion will mature on its own, to the praise of God”.

As a sign of this unity, two Orthodox bishops attended Friday’s Mass of Francis at the main sports stadium in Nicosia for the small Catholic community of Cyprus. The stadium, which can seat 22,000 people, was less than half full and Francis avoided his usual popemobile roundabout to greet the faithful before mass, probably because the crowd only filled one grandstand. .

Here too, however, Francis urged a message of unity in a country torn apart by divisions, even among Catholics. “Healing takes place when we carry our pain together, when we face our problems together, when we listen to and talk to each other,” he said.

For his part, Archbishop Chrysostomos said the Cypriot church has “excellent relations” with all churches and has continued in recent years the dialogue with Muslim leaders in the Middle East – an effort which he says has been largely ruined by “extremist elements” which “ignite passions”. ”

“We firmly believe in the peaceful resolution of our differences, whether ethnic or religious. And the only correct way is through a truly sincere dialogue,” he said.

Although Cyprus comprises only a tiny part of the Eastern Orthodox community with around 800,000 faithful, Cypriot religious leaders stress the role of the Mediterranean island as a “gateway” to the expansion of Christianity westward in because of its proximity to the birthplace of faith.

Christianity first spread to Cyprus in AD 45, when the apostle Paul converted the island’s Roman governor, Sergius Paulus, in the first step of his first mission to spread the faith. The Cypriot Church itself is said to have been founded by another apostle, Barnabas.

Francis has made Cyprus’s connection to the roots of Christianity a focal point of his visit, which ends on Saturday when he travels to Greece. Cypriot Church leaders are keen to strengthen ties with the Holy See, as minority Christian communities in neighboring countries fear their faith will be under attack amid armed conflict.

Pope Francis conducts a mass at the GSP Stadium in Nicosia, Cyprus on Friday, December 3, 2021.

Pope Francis conducts a mass at the GSP Stadium in Nicosia, Cyprus on Friday, December 3, 2021.
(AP Photo / Alessandra Tarantino)

Cyprus itself bears the scars of war. The nation split along ethnic lines in 1974 when Turkey invaded following a coup aimed at uniting the island with Greece. After the ethnic split, 170,000 Christians fled the separatist Turkish Cypriot north, where churches, monasteries and other Christian monuments were destroyed.

Tens of thousands of Muslim Turkish Cypriots fled north after the end of hostilities.

The destruction of Christian places of worship was one of the key issues that Chrysostomos raised with Francis in the hope that the pontiff’s political strength will help revive the stalled talks to reunite Cyprus and assist in the repatriation of looted religious works of art. , including icons, frescoes and mosaics.

Chrysostomos called on the pontiff to personally intercede and help restore “respect for our cultural heritage” and “Christian culture, which today are brutally violated by Turkey”.

The Archbishop cited the example of Francis’ predecessor, Pope Benedict XVI, who negotiated with the German government to bring back 500 religious items that Turkish antiquities smugglers had taken to Munich.

Upon his arrival on Thursday, Francis urged Greek Cypriots and Turkish Cypriots to resume talks, saying threats and shows of force only prolong the “terrible laceration” that the island’s residents have been suffering for nearly a half-century.

“Let us nurture hope through the power of gestures, rather than by gestures of power,” Francis told Cypriot President Nicos Anastasiades and other heads of government at the presidential palace, located in the south recognized by the Greek Cypriots.

Pope Francis welcomes his arrival at the Apostolos Varnavas Orthodox Cathedral in Nicosia, Cyprus on Friday, December 3, 2021.

Pope Francis welcomes his arrival at the Apostolos Varnavas Orthodox Cathedral in Nicosia, Cyprus on Friday, December 3, 2021.
(AP Photo / Petros Karadjias)

The prospects for the unification of the island have seldom been as bleak as they are today. The Turkish Cypriots, led by their newly elected leader Ersin Tatar, changed their preconditions for peace and demanded recognition of a separate state before an agreement could even be discussed.

Previously, the two sides had agreed – with the endorsement of the United Nations Security Council – that any agreement would involve the establishment of a two-zone federation, with a Turkish Cypriot zone to the north, a Greek Cypriot to the south and a Greek Cypriot zone to the south. only federal government regulating the main ministries. , including defense and foreign affairs.


Acknowledging the stalled talks and the continued suffering of Christians unable to return to their former homes in the predominantly Muslim north, Francis urged an initiative by Christian and Muslim religious leaders on the island to promote reconciliation.

“The moments which seem the least favorable, when dialogue languishes, can be the very moments which prepare for peace”, declared the pontiff.

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