Pope Francis begins in Cyprus Thursday a visit focused on immigrants and Christian dialogue

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Nicosia (AFP) – Pope Francis will arrive Thursday afternoon at Larnaca Airport in his first leg of a visit that includes Cyprus and Greece, during which he will once again bear the banner of defending immigrants and stressing the importance of dialogue between different Christian denominations.

He is the second pope to visit Cyprus, eleven years after Pope Benedict XVI visited the small Mediterranean island with an Orthodox majority and the only country in the European Union divided as a result of a foreign invasion. The visit takes two days.

The public mass that the Pope will celebrate at the Municipal Stadium in Nicosia on Friday morning will be the climax of the visit. It is the only event in which all the followers of the Catholic Church of all denominations, numbering about 25,000, between Maronites and Catholics, most of whom are Asian immigrants, will be able to see the Pope and participate in prayer.

The Maronite, Latin, and Catholic churches mobilized all their energies to prepare for the Mass by inviting the faithful to participate massively, organizing transportation and distributing invitations and souvenirs.

On Friday evening, the Pope presides over an ecumenical prayer to which a group of immigrants are invited.

According to the Cypriot authorities, the Pope may repeat the symbolic gesture he made on the Greek island of Lesbos in 2016, when he took with him to the Vatican three Syrian Muslim families illegally immigrating to Greece, noting that negotiations are underway to accompany him when he leaves the island, a number of immigrants. .

In a video message published by the Vatican a few days ago, in preparation for the Pope’s visit to Cyprus and Greece, Pope Francis reiterated the description of the Mediterranean, on which the two countries are located, as turning into a “great cemetery”, referring to the thousands of migrants who drowned while trying to escape from conflicts and wars in their countries in The Middle East into a safe haven in Europe.

And arrived on the shores of Cyprus in recent years, an increasing number of immigrants.

The authorities say that Cyprus, which has a population of one million, today has the largest number of asylum applications submitted by immigrants relative to its population, compared to other European Union countries.

An aerial view taken on December 1, 2021 of the new Greek-Orthodox cathedral of Santa Barra in old Nicosia, where Pope Francis will meet with the heads of the Orthodox Church during his visit to Cyprus Amir Makar AFP

“Dialogue message”

During his visit, the Pope carries the slogan “consolation in the faith”, which is derived from the meaning of the name of Saint Barnabas of Cypriot nationality, which means “the comforter”.

The patriarchal vicar of the Latin Church, Jerzy Cragg, told AFP that the Pope’s arrival in Cyprus and Greece, the two Orthodox countries, carries “a definite message of dialogue, open dialogue, and no restrictions on speaking with the other.”

In his recorded message to the heads of the two Orthodox Churches in Cyprus and Greece, the Pope said, “As a brother in the faith, it will be a blessing for you to receive me, as will the meeting with you in the name of the Master of Peace.”

Since he became the head of the Catholic Church, Pope Francis has given interfaith dialogue, and between the various Christian denominations, a top priority.

On Friday morning, he will meet the bishops of the Orthodox Church in Cyprus at the archbishop’s residence in old Nicosia.

The liturgical coordinator of the visit on behalf of the Maronite Church, Ibrahim Khayta, told AFP that “the Pope said that he does not come to Cyprus for the sake of Catholics, but for the sake of Catholics, Orthodox, immigrants, all sects and all nationalities.”

The Cypriot authorities described the visit as “historic”. On Thursday, the Pope will meet Cypriot President Nicos Anastasiades at the Presidential Palace in Nicosia.

An official statement said that the Cypriot president will also present to the Pope his country’s vision for a “just and viable solution” for the island divided since 1974.

Turkey invaded the northern part of Cyprus in 1974 in response to a coup by nationalists who were calling for Cyprus to be linked to Greece. Negotiations under the auspices of the United Nations on the reunification of the island have been suspended since 2017.

“exceptional person”

After arriving at Larnaca Airport at 3:00 pm (13:00 GMT), the Pope will go directly to the Maronite Cathedral of Our Lady of Graces in Nicosia, where he will meet the Maronite Patriarch Bechara Al-Rai, who came from neighboring Lebanon, which is mired in a deep economic and political crisis, to participate in the event. Along with Maronite clergy and notables.

Officials in the Maronite Church stated that many Lebanese delegations came to Cyprus to participate in the event.

They expected that the Pope would come during his visit, during which he will deliver several words on Lebanon and its crisis. He made an appeal to the Lebanese last summer, begging them not to lose hope, and calling for “urgent and firm solutions to the economic, social and political crisis.”

He also promised to visit Lebanon.

The Maronite Cypriots, whose ancestors came from Lebanon and Syria since the eighth century, constitute less than 1 percent of the population of Cyprus, and most of them were displaced from their villages in the north of the island after the Turkish invasion.

“I am anxiously awaiting the arrival of Pope Francis, and I have requested leave from work so that I can participate in this historic event,” said Cypriot Maronite Elena Lakkotrypis, who joined a new choir rehearsing to serve the Pope’s mass.

“We love the Pope so much because he is an exceptional person. He is humble and a defender of the poor, simplicity and peace,” she said, adding, “I am very excited and I cannot describe how happy I am to see him.”

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