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Maronites in the devided Cyprus

Maronites slip through Cyprus divide
                                By Ayla Jean Yackley
     

 SwissInfo International News, May 22, 2002 -- KORMAKITIS, Cyprus (Reuters)

This northern Cypriot village awakens on Sundays to the sound of children's laughter echoing off abandoned houses, but the streets fall silent in the evening when a few hundred Maronites leave their ancestral home to return across the border to the Greek south.

Cyprus's Maronites are the only minority able to travel between the Greek south and the Turkish north. Straddling the divide, they belong fully neither to one side nor the other. Just 136 Maronites, most of them elderly, still live in Kormakitis. Their sons and daughters have left this far-flung peninsula in the island's northwest corner, driven out by fighting between Greeks and Turks and decades of economic sanctions. The Maronites had no direct stake in the conflict that tore Cyprus apart nearly 30 years ago. "We have paid the price, we have suffered for the problems between Greeks and Turks," said Antonis, who was born in Kormakitis or Korucam in Turkish.

"Imagine coming to the house where you were born, where your mother still lives, but you cannot stay," he said. Maronites who move south are not permitted to return. Lemon and myrtle trees grow in gardens behind low-lying walls. Yellow sandstone houses with blue shutters and doors are far outnumbered by the forsaken homes with collapsed roofs, wild fig trees straining at living room walls.

The rolling hills of the Kormakitis peninsula, blanketed in pine groves and barley, seem a long way from the U.N. patrolled Green Line, where Secretary-General Kofi Annan sat last week with President Glafcos Clerides and Turkish Cypriot leader Rauf Denktash to negotiate a peace deal. The two veteran leaders have been meeting since January in a bid to reunite the island in some form but hopes have dimmed that talks will yield any real progress ahead of a June deadline. It is unclear what the Maronites would gain from any settlement. They have no official representation at the talks and have no legal status as their own community. When the 1960 constitution was drafted after Cyprus's independence from Britain, the island's non-Turkish minorities, which also include Armenians and Latins, all opted to be treated as part of the majority Greek Cypriot community.

"Maronites have not had a direct role (in the talks), and they are concerned their positions are not taken into account," said Madeline Garlick, a U.N. political officer in Cyprus.


EXODUS

Ethnic violence in the 1960s culminated in 1974, with a Greek Cypriot coup and a subsequent Turkish invasion. Thousands of Turkish Cypriots fled from enclaves in the north; Greek Cypriots were forced to resettle in the south. A few thousand Maronites clung to their remote homesteads until 1980, but most families soon headed south to educate their children and find work as an international embargo took its toll on the self-declared Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus (TRNC). Turkey garrisons 30,000 soldiers in the north and is the only country to recognise the TRNC. The international community considers the south's government the sole legitimate authority.

Maronites fled to Cyprus in waves during the Middle Ages to escape violence at the hands of other Christians, Islamic invaders and the Crusaders en route to the Holy Land. The colony peaked in the 13th century when at least 18,000 Maronites lived in more than 60 villages, according to the Maronite Research Institute in Washington, D.C. The Catholic sect faired poorly after the Ottoman conquest of 1571 as Greek Orthodoxy gained ascendancy. Villages dropped from 33 to four by the time the British arrived in 1878. Many converted to Islam or Greek Orthodoxy, the island's only recognised minority, to escape taxation or persecution. Others returned to Lebanon, said Mete Hatay, a local historian who has extensively researched the Maronites of Cyprus. "The Maronites of the Kormakitis are the last. They survived in isolation," Hatay said.


TIES TO LAND

Today less than 6,000 Maronites live in Cyprus, most transplanted from Kormakitis to Nicosia suburbs in the south. The old have remained behind, determined to persevere, to await an elusive peace.

"Many have a strong attachment to their village. They don't want to lose control of their homes or property," Garlick said. "There is a great deal of sadness among the community." Turkish Cypriot law bars Maronites from passing on houses and fields to family in the south. "Settling (Maronites') property rights will be part of the settlement," said Sadettin Topukcu, who oversees minority affairs in the TRNC. Authorities hold property in receivership when an owner dies, but do not sell or give it away. Property settlement is one of the main obstacles to an agreement. Any eventual deal between Greek and Turkish Cypriots will probably consist of some restitution of seized property to maintain the integrity of the two zones.

"Turks don't realise the difference between Maronites and Greek Cypriots. They see them as the same thing," Hatay said. Maronites' relative freedom to move about has caused suspicions on both sides. Two Maronites were jailed in 1999 by a Greek Cypriot court on spying charges. Turkish soldiers man checkpoints on the road to Kormakitis. "They have no leadership similar to that of Turkish Cypriots and Greek Cypriots, no backing of a 'motherland,'" Garlick said. They practice religion freely in the north, she said. The U.N. conducts humanitarian patrols, delivering mail and food to Kormakitis and three more spots where 26 other Maronites remain. Villagers choose their own leader to coordinate with authorities, and a Turkish Cypriot doctor checks in weekly. "They are treated like any other citizen," Topukcu said. But he acknowledges they also bear the scars of the divided land. "All Cypriots are used to seeing their children move away. The Maronites suffer along with the rest of us."


GENERATIONS RETURN

"It is so quiet here when the children leave. It is just us and the empty houses," said Sister Pierra Ratrioloudi, the 72-year-old nun who tends the Church of St George in Kormakitis. Around 400 Maronites pay a small visa fee on Sundays to attend mass at St George. During holidays the congregation swells to 1,000 people as generations return to the homeland. Toddlers clamber through packed pews, and dark-haired teenagers mouth words to plaintive hymns sung in Syriac and Aramaic, the language of the earliest Christians. Michalis Skollou, 25, was one of the last to attend the village school here before it was closed in the early 1990s. "I feel sad but I wouldn't be satisfied here now. When peace comes to Cyprus, I will definitely live in Kormakitis."