NICOSIA, Cyprus – On the Greek side of the divided island of Cyprus, Pope Francis celebrated an open-air mass on Friday morning, calling for openness to migrants seeking a better life.
When he was finished, the Muslim prayer call resounded over the arched courtyards and dusty streets of the Turkish north, across the guarded border. There, university students from Africa expressed hope that one day they could leave Cyprus’s economically struggling north and reach the EU.
The pope’s prayers for receptivity and compassion helped their cause, said Chloe Samaka, 30, a political science student from Cameroon as she went to class in the north. “When the pope speaks, it’s not just religious, it’s political.”
During his two days in Cyprus, Francis has sought to inspire the country, an EU member state, to embrace its history as a crossroads for different cultures, enriched by new migrants, and to be a model for the rest of Europe.
But it is a major order on an island filled with geopolitical tensions, centuries of hostility and accusations from the south that Turkey, which controls the north, is using migrants and asylum seekers as new political ammunition in a deep-rooted conflict.
This island is in some respects a microcosm of the migration trends facing Europe; The accusation that migrants are being used as peasants is reminiscent of last month’s tensions on the border between Belarus and Poland.
And unlike Francis and the many migrants who see him as a tireless advocate, the Cypriot government has seen the increase in migration through Turkey as an existential threat rather than as a source of spiritual and cultural fulfillment.
Friday night, Francis seemed to have had enough.
Speaking in a parish where the pews were filled with migrant families, several of whom had been arranged by the Vatican to return to Italy, Francis put aside his prepared remarks and spoke in unusually straightforward terms. “We can not keep quiet” about a “culture of indifference,” he said.
Francis looked at the pews, filled with men and women from Africa and the Middle East, some with crying babies. “When I look at you, I see the faces of suffering,” he said, calling their situation “the story of a slavery, a universal slavery.”
The pope’s voice built with emotion and enumerated the terrible conditions that many migrants are exposed to in order to come to Europe. Some were pushed back after spending their savings and trapped in migrant centers, which he compared to “concentration camps, real concentration camps” where women are sold and men are tortured.
He said people reading about the Nazi death camps and Stalin’s gulag asked “how could this happen?” adds: “Brothers and sisters, it’s happening now, in the adjacent shores.”
Those who were not caught, he said, crossed the Mediterranean, which “has become a large cemetery.”
“The worst thing is that we are getting used to this,” he said with irritation. “Getting used to it is a serious disease, very serious, and there is no antibiotic against this disease.”
He added: “It is my responsibility to help open my eyes.”
The Government of Cyprus has stated that it also sees migration clearly and that it poses a threat to the national structure.
Cyprus’s asylum seekers and migrants make up almost 4% of the population, which Francis has tried to give as a gift, but which the Greek Cypriot government clearly considers a burden. In 2020, the country’s Home Secretary, Nicos Nouris, lamented this percentage at a government meeting and begged the European Commission to help it.
The government has said that a large majority of migrants who came to Cyprus in the first 10 months of 2021 did so through the porous parts of the UN buffer zone. And it said 9,270 of the 10,868 people who made the crossing made it illegal.
Migrants arrive primarily on small boats, from Turkey, Syria and most recently Lebanon, and then smugglers and smugglers bring them to the Republic of Cyprus, according to Emilia Strovolidou, the spokeswoman for Cyprus for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. Some, especially those from African countries, fly to northern Cyprus on study visas from human traffickers.
Many Turkish Cypriots in the north of the island rejected the notion that Turkey was behind the increase in migrants. “There is no government policy to push them down to Cyprus,” said Djemal Varoglu, 65, a retired local official, while sipping coffee. “They come by themselves.”
Francis blamed political interests on Friday night for exacerbating the crisis, but acknowledged that no matter what forces were at play, it was necessary to find a balance. Cyprus was a generous island, he said, but with such a small population “it can not do everything” to accommodate so many asylum seekers.
The government has tried to ward off what it calls “demographic change” and has blamed migrants for socio-economic erosion and rising crime.
In November, it said it had reached an emergency, though the numbers were far from frightening, with about 33,000 cases of illegal residents across the republic. The government appealed to the EU for the right to suspend asylum applications from people entering the country illegally.
It also put pressure on the immediate relocation of some asylum seekers to other European Member States, as well as the repatriation of asylum seekers to their countries of origin.
“Because Turkey does not recognize the Republic of Cyprus,” said Marios Pelekanos, a spokesman for the Cypriot government, “we can not use the agreement between Turkey and the EU to send these people back to Turkey.” He claimed that “Cyprus is now facing the biggest problem in Europe.”
Just as Francis hoped to use the trip to reinforce his vision of migration, the government hoped, Mr Pelekanos said, to “take advantage of the pope’s visit” to highlight the challenges that migration presents. On Thursday, with the Pope sitting next to him, the President of Cyprus Nicos Anastasiades described a wide range of complaints against Turkey.
According to the UN Commission, 8,605 people applied for refugee and asylum status this year; a further 6,483 were pending. Since 2002, more than 96,000 people have applied. Of these, only 15,333 have been accepted. According to Mrs Strovolidou, the majority are Syrian, although many come from Africa.
Asylum seekers are treated at the Pournara Reception Center, “where conditions are difficult due to overcrowding,” she said.
“We reiterate the Pope’s compassionate plea for solidarity with the most marginalized people: refugees, displaced persons and migrants,” she said.
But the mood of the people is stiffening.
Saida Memedova, 19, who works in a patisserie in the south, said she had nothing against the migrants, but added that many had no job and turned to crime. She is an asylum seeker from Azerbaijan and said that the problem between Turkey and Cyprus could only be solved by the two countries.
“People from outside have no influence,” she said. “It simply came to our notice then. He’s from the outside. He has not lived with the problem. “
At the open-air Mass, Francis told believers that his visit had offered him a view he typically called the Holy Land – of those who were open to the future and “share this greater vision with those most in need.”
“I am thinking in particular,” he said, “of migrants in search of a better life.”
Elisabetta Povoledo contributed reporting from Rome