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Cyprus' Maronite community in crisis

The Daily Star -- Reprinted by Permission from

KORMAKITIS, Northern Cyprus: Aside from the occasional front door propped open, there are few traces of life among the shuttered windows, sun-bleached buildings and silent footpaths of Kormakitis.

This spread-out village - most of whose residents are in their 70s - is buffeted by the sea on one side and enclosed by a verdant, yellow-green plain on the other. Once the bustling heart of the Maronite community, Kormakitis today has been stripped to a ghost town of less than 900 souls by a generation of emigrants to the more prosperous Greek Cypriot South.

"The policy, originally, was to get rid of (the Maronites)," said Marios Mavrides, a Maronite historian of the community who lives and works in Nicosia but who every week makes the 20-minute car journey to the land where he was born.

"Now that they (the Turkish Cypriot government) realize that eventually they will die off, they leave them in peace."

In 1974, thousands of Maronites streamed across the Green Line leaving their homeland for an uncertain future in the Greek Christian south after Turkish troops invaded northern Cyprus. The intervention followed a decade of ethnic strife between the Greek and Turkish communities and a coup aimed at bringing about unification with Greece.

"1974 turned the whole community into refugees," said Antonis Hajji Roussos, the Maronite parliamentary representative. "Gradually, everyone left and only the old people remained."

The Maronites left behind them ancestral villages such as Agia Marina, Asomatos, Carpasia and Kormakitis. The latter is the only remaining place on Cyprus where Cypriot Maronite Arabic - a dialect infused with a melange of Turkish, Italian and Greek words - is still spoken.

The dialect's long isolation from the main currents of the Arab world has caused it to develop on a track of its own, to such an extent that it is practically unintelligible to native speakers of Arabic. Linguists are puzzled by the characteristics it shares with the medieval Arabic dialect spoken in Baghdad by the Muslims and Jews, even as they point to evidence that it has reached an advanced stage of language death.

Today, the drive to the Maronite heartland resembles a plunge into dereliction. Abandoned villages are fenced off by coils of rusty barbed wire and watchtowers - embedded at regular intervals - delineate out-of-bounds military zones. Military vehicles parked in rows in village squares and derelict church spires peeping above buildings subjected to 30 years of neglect complete the surreal panorama of a militarized rural idyll. Of the remaining Maronite villages, two are closed military zones whose residents need a pass to enter and exit.

"Those who had land stayed behind while the others left," said Mavrides. "But as it became clear there would not be a quick solution and the Turkish sector held few jobs, everyone went."

The enclaved community of mostly elderly Maronites left behind depended for many years on supplies of food and medicine from the Red Cross and the United Nations. Although the biweekly deliveries continue to this day, they are increasingly seen as being a propaganda tool for the Greek Cypriot government.

At a time when supplies are no longer really needed, Maronites in the South say the aid has become a political tool used to point an accusatory finger at the internationally unrecognized Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus (TRNC) for its neglect of the community.

Last year's surprise opening of the Green Line that divides Turkish and Greek Cypriots has punctuated a tiny revival in the trend toward decline. On the weekends, visitors come up from the prosperous Greek south, patronize the cafes and tavernas that remain shut during the week, and inject some cash into the wilting local economy.

"The biggest shock for us was when the border reopened after 30 years," said Mavrides. "We hadn't just left behind us a house but a whole way of life."

For Maronites trekking back to their childhood idylls for the first time in 30 years, facing the Turkish Cypriot families now inhabiting their houses was a potentially traumatic experience. But despite the language barrier and mutual distrust, most Maronites had positive experiences of meeting those who now inhabit their houses.

But opening the border, even as a settlement of the Cyprus imbroglio remains elusive, could just spell the end for the Maronite heartland of the North. Already, the Maronites' mountain settlements and monasteries are devoid of inhabitants, the last of which cluster in villages on the plain.

While the community of Kormakitis has somewhat revived and some middle-aged couples have moved back in the wake of the Green Line opening, it is a far cry from the 2,000 Maronites who lived there on the eve of the invasion. Meanwhile, the trend toward leaving the economically-strapped North is set to continue following the entry of Cyprus into the EU.

Once in the South, Maronites are in danger of losing their identity as many marry Greek Cypriots and assimilate, swapping their unique dialect and customs for the Greek Orthodox majority's.

"There was always a suspicion of us by the Greek Orthodox but now they've got over this because of mixed marriages and the growing assimilation," said Mavrides, who has written a paper on the Maronite community titled, "A Community in Crisis."

"Being Maronite can actually be negative. If you apply for a position, you might not get it. If you run for Parliament, there's no reason to be different from the people who might vote for you."

Today, the dusty lanes of Kormakitis are a steadily ossifying cultural repository of an ancient, perhaps doomed, community. A new generation of Maronites in the South prefer the hip cafes of Greek Nicosia over the church and see no need to hang on to a religious identity that sets them apart from the mainstream.

Ties with Lebanon are weak and mostly confined to cultural and religious activities. While Maronite communities thrive in Brazil and the United States, the last members of one of the most historical of diasporas appear to have entered the final straight.

"Unfortunately, Cyprus was a closed shop to the Lebanese," said Hajji Roussos in a reference to the exchange control restrictions imposed by the Greek Cypriot government in the 1970s that discouraged foreigners from buying land or doing business on the island.

Aside from a handful of mixed marriages, the Christian and Muslim Lebanese who moved to Cyprus during the civil war years had little interaction with the indigenous Maronites.

"Many of the Maronite exiles attended churches on Cyprus and met local Maronites," said Mavrides. "But political relations with Lebanon are low and there were only ever 15 to 20 cases of Maronites from Cyprus marrying Lebanese Maronites."

A short history of Cyprus' Maronites

Originally from Syria, today's Maronite community in Cyprus was shaped by four successive waves of emigration that started in the 8th century and lasted over six centuries.

With the Islamic conquests radiating outward from the Arab Peninsula, the Maronites abandoned Syria's lush coastal plains for the inaccessible mountains of contemporary Lebanon.Some went further afield settling on Cyprus.

In 938, the destruction of St Maron's Monastery on the Orontes River prompted a second wave of refugees. Another three centuries passed and Crusader king Guy de Lusignan purchased Cyprus from Richard the Lionheart, leading the former to import hardy Maronite warriors to the island to protect its coastlines.

The last wave of emigration came 100 years later when Acre, last outpost of the Crusader edifice, collapsed and the traditionally pro-Crusader Maronites fled Muslim reprisals.

The martial Maronites - fierce mountaineers whose tradition recounts how they forced two Umayyad caliphs to pay them tribute in the first decades of Islam's expansion - have maintained an awkward coexistence with their Muslim neighbors. Often, they allied themselves with outside, non-Muslim powers like the Crusaders; France during the Mandate period; and Israel during the Lebanese civil war. On Cyprus, the Maronites were promoted by the British whose policy was to support minorities.

The influx of Maronites who arrived on the island in the 12th century were initially privileged as they based themselves in the mountains and guarded the coastal areas of the Crusader kingdom against invasion. Up to 32,000 Maronites were killed during the Ottoman conquest of Cyprus in 1570. At the battle of Famagusta alone, 8,000 died in a bid to stop the Turks from breaching the city walls. Only 812 remained on the island.

The Ottomans punished them for their insubordination by appointing the Greek Orthodox religious majority the main Christian representatives on the island and banning Catholicism. This fomented conflict, for the indigenous Orthodox community resented the Maronites, thinking them deviants.

Guita Hourani, chairwoman of the Maronite Research Institute, writes that in Cyprus "the Maronites faced 'Latinization,' Greek schismatic abuse, and 'Islamization.' ... Their life on the island was filled with sorrow and pain.

"However, they maintained a presence and persisted in their faith, although some succumbed due to persecution. They had their own clergy and bishops, but effectively they were under the ecclesiastical domination of either the Greeks or the Latins."

Ottoman rule was harsh for the Maronites. They were victimized both by the Muslim Turks for their opposition to the Ottoman invasion and by their Orthodox coreligionists. Fourteen Maronite villages became extinct during the three centuries of Ottoman domination as waves of Maronites escaped back to the Sham region or moved westward to Malta.

Hourani writes that the Ottomans imposed increasingly high taxation on the Maronites, accused them of treason, ravaged their harvests and abducted their wives and children into slavery. As a consequence, the Maronite clergy relocated to present-day Lebanon, where they remain to this day.

After the British replaced the Ottomans on Cyprus, they promoted the Maronite community, as well as other minorities such as the Armenians and Turkish Cypriots. But independence for Cyprus in 1960 was followed by ethnic clashes between the Greek and Turkish Cypriots The Turkish invasion of 1974 effectively dealt a death blow to the Maronite community and dispersed it.

While persecution is no longer a threat, Maronites today face their greatest threat in the form of assimilation into the homogeneous, Greek Orthodox Christian majority in the south.


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