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Pope Francis greets Salpy Eskidjian, founder of "Religious Track" at the Nunciature in Nicosia during his apostolic visit to Cyprus Pope Francis greets Salpy Eskidjian, founder of "Religious Track" at the Nunciature in Nicosia during his apostolic visit to Cyprus  (Vatican Media)

“Religious Track” fostering dialogue for unity in Cyprus

The Cypriot conflict is not a religious but a political one. And yet religion is being instrumentalized and misused in this context. This is emphasized in an interview with Vatican Radio by Salpy Eskidijan, the founder of "Religious Track", an initiative that has been bringing the religious leaders of Cyprus to the table for the past ten years so that they can be taken seriously as a voice in the peace process.

By Christine Seuss

It was Pope Francis’ desire to meet the Religious Track Group during his visit to Cyprus at the beginning of December. During that meeting, he encouraged group members to continue their work of peacebuilding and reconciliation with the involvement of the leaders of the different religious communities in the country.

Understanding the dynamics

It all started with the 2004 referendum in which the island's two communities were called to the polls to vote on a settlement based on a plan drawn up by Kofi Annan for the reunification of Cyprus. However, the Greek south, in particular, clearly rejected the plan, with around 76 per cent of the eligible (Greek Cypriot) residents in the south voting against it, while a majority in the Turkish-occupied northern part (65 per cent) voted in favour. Regardless of the outcome of the vote, the southern part of the island became a full member of the EU on 1 May 2004. But why did the Cypriots in the south vote so clearly against the plan that would have put an end to the legal uncertainty and the de facto division of the island? This question was on Salpy Eskidijan's mind both in the run-up to the vote, when the reservations of the population were already clear, and afterwards. She was working at the World Council of Churches at the time, where Cyprus was part of her portfolio, and she was called to prepare a recommendation for the World Council of Churches on what position the inter-church body should officially take on the issue. Thus, she recalls in conversation with Vatican Radio's Christine Seuss, she ploughed through the 80-page draft treaty, coming across several points that made her think.

Listen to the interview with Salpy Eskidijan

Identifying the stakeholders

An important insight in peace research is to identify the stakeholders who need to be involved in the process early on. But no one, at the time, thought to involve the Church: "And it was shocking for me to discover that neither the Church of Cyprus nor religious representatives had been involved, that no one had spoken to them, either individually or as a group. We always say that, if you are not at the negotiating table, or in one way or another involved, consulted or heard by those in the lead, then it’s not a surprise when you don't trust the agreement."

The majority of the Orthodox Church in Cyprus, including the bishops, voted "no", indeed, more than that, the Orthodox religious leadership also urged the faithful to vote "no". Those who were in favour of the treaty, or who voted yes, did not make this known publicly, Eskidijan later found out.

Similarly, the majority of women also voted no, the experts later analysed. "Why? Because they were not part of it!" was Salpy Eskidijan's terse answer. They had simply not seen the things they cared about addressed in the agreement, and they had not sufficiently understood the political and economic manoeuvres therein. For those in charge had made a grave mistake here, the enterprising peacemaker stresses: "Another shocking realisation was that there was an assumption that the peace agreement would only have to be accepted by the two leaders, then trickle down from the top and reconciliation would be achieved. That is not the way to achieve national reconciliation. No peace agreement will ever bring absolute justice to both sides because compromises have to be made."

The role of faith-based institutions

However, with "all due respect" to the diplomatic efforts at the highest levels in Track Number 1, there had been no concrete consultations and deliberations flanking the other "tracks" such as non-governmental organizations or civil society, especially faith-based institutions, religious leaders and communities, which Eskidijan notes, provide insight into the language and procedures of peace-building international agreements. At the time in question, civil society in all its various formations was also far from being as organised as it might be today, she points out.

"Religions and religious representatives were relegated to the sidelines, and you can imagine where that led." Nevertheless, the Cyprus conflict is not a religious conflict, says Salpy Eskidijan. "It is a political conflict, yes, but religion is a victim in this process and religious freedom is not fully respected. And that has to be taken into account as well."

This becomes particularly clear when religious communities are deprived of property that is given to others - as has happened in the case of numerous churches and mosques or other religious places. "You can't just say, ‘ok, I'll give a church to a theatre group, or turn it into a storage [room] or a stable, or a mosque into a cultural centre, a museum, or lock it up, just because you think you can’. If anything, you have to at least make sure that the religious communities are involved."

The need to build trust

For example, she said, it was particularly bad for residents who had been displaced from their villages to see their cemeteries abandoned and no longer maintained - to the point that bones were sticking out of the graves... "Places of worship and cemeteries are considered sacred for the faithful and can’t be desecrated or left to perish. The peace process can’t ignore this anymore as this becomes a hurdle in trust-building.  Disrespecting what is sacred to a community is like disrespecting them. Ignoring this and the religious leaders only hurts the process. In 2004, we noticed that not only the religious leaders or faith communities were not engaged in the peace process, neither by the locals or the international community, but also that in the recent history of Cyprus, the Christian and Muslim religious leaders of Cyprus had not come together at the same table to talk to each other and work together."

So, it was clear that there was a need for action, emphasises Eskidijan, who received support from the Swedish Embassy in Nicosia and the Religious Social Democrats of Sweden. Not only because of her Swedish connection, but because Sweden, as a neutral terrain without a colonial past in Cyprus, as a country that stands up for international law and human rights, could offer a neutral framework in which trust could grow. The "Religious Track" was actually the working title of the initiative, in reference to the political "Track Number One", admits Eskedijan, but in the end, it just kept the name. Although the Religious Track is interreligious, "theological questions are not discussed here," the peace activist explains.

A space in which to nurture peacebuilding

"It's a space where religious leaders come together to discuss peace and reconciliation, to discuss whether they recognise each other enough to bear common witness and stand up for religious freedom." In the beginning, things went very slowly and many setbacks had to be overcome, Eskidijan says. She, the granddaughter of Armenian Orthodox migrants, recalls the first years and adds: "As Pope Francis said at the meeting with the migrants in Nicosia, it takes a lot of patience, and we also had to be very patient. Peacebuilding is a very slow process without a big show. Sometimes it seems to go one step forward and two steps back..." In the meantime, there has clearly been visible progress, for example, religious leaders have already issued some joint statements on the Cyprus question, on violence against women, on missing persons (a big issue in Cyprus, after the clashes between the Turkish and the Greek Cypriots years ago) and on the need for the dignified treatment of migrants, among others. Most important is that they stand up for each others’ rights and advocate for religious freedom for all.

But much remains to be done, says the enterprising activist, who nevertheless prefers to prepare the ground for the religious leaders to formulate their own statements and joint actions. "I believe passionately in what I do, but it is what the religious leaders have made their own. They are doing it, and they are doing it together. For the first time in the modern history of Cyprus, we are seeing a common witness," she says, a witness that has also received international attention thanks to the Pope's visit and his attention to the country's concerns.

Background information

Salpy Eskidijan Weiderud has been the executive director of the Office for the Religious Track of the Cyprus Peace Process ("Religious Track") since 2012. After a quiet beginning, since 2009 Religious Track has become an active peacebuilding initiative based on four pillars: Getting to know and building trust between religious leaders and the respective faith communities; promoting confidence-building measures and reconciliation; advocating for the right of free access to churches, mosques and monasteries; and ensuring the protection of all religious monuments in Cyprus.

Salpy Eskidjian and Vatican Radio's Christine Seuss in Cyprus
Salpy Eskidjian and Vatican Radio's Christine Seuss in Cyprus
19 December 2021, 15:30