(RNS) Pope Benedict XVI’s overseas travels typically involve vast crowds of adoring Catholics, often squeezed into sports stadiums or public venues for large-scale Masses.
But when Benedict makes the first official papal visit to Cyprus next weekend (June 4-6), his total flock will number just 25,000, and his main speech will be held in the sports field of an elementary school.
Even so, Benedict’s words and gestures during his brief visit are likely to resonate far beyond the divided island nation. The momentous issues on his agenda include the Catholic Church’s relations with Orthodox Christianity, Islam and Judaism, and the plight of Christians throughout the Middle East.
On Sunday (June 6), Benedict is scheduled to with a group of Catholic bishops from the Middle East in the Cypriot capital of Nicosia, where he will receive the official agenda for a special October synod on the region.
As indicated in a document released earlier this year, major topics of the Vatican synod will include religious freedom in Muslim countries, Islamic extremism, Israel’s “occupation” of the Palestinian territories, and the recent exodus of Christians from the region.
Christians, who six decades ago formed 20 percent of the total population of Israel and Palestine, are today no more than 2 percent, largely because of economically driven emigration. The situation of Christians in Iraq is just as dire, with tens of thousands fleeing since the U.S.-led invasion in 2003.
Benedict will also meet with Archbishop Chrysostomos II, leader of Cyprus’s 800,000 Orthodox Christians, in the latest sign of warming relations between the Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches, which split nearly 1,000 years ago.
Last December, the Vatican and Russia finally established full diplomatic relations — a move previously opposed by the large and influential Russian Orthodox Church, which long resented Catholics for allegedly attempting to convert Orthodox believers.
At a recent press conference at the Vatican, the top ecumenical official of the Russian Orthodox church voiced optimism that the leader of the Moscow church, Patriarch Kirill, would soon meet with Benedict, granting a papal wish that eluded Pope John Paul II. The two leaders say they share the goal of reviving Christianity in an increasingly secular Europe.
Still, tensions remain, as evidenced by recent protests against the pope’s visit by a vocal minority of Orthodox Cypriots; Chrysostomos admonished them to “stay home” while Benedict is there.
Benedict’s visit could also highlight a source of conflict between Orthodox Christians and Muslims. For three and half decades, the island has been divided between the internationally recognized Republic of Cyprus in the south, and a northern sector seized by the Turkish military in 1974, which is now almost exclusively Muslim.
Although travel between the zones has been permitted since 2003, reunification is not in sight. Orthodox leaders are especially vehement about the desecration and destruction of the churches they were forced to abandon in north, a subject they are likely to raise during Benedict’s stay.
The pope is likely to treat such complaints with diplomatic caution.
Islam has been a delicate subject for Benedict since September 2006, when he quoted a medieval description of the religion as “evil and inhuman” and “spread by the sword,” which led to violent outbursts throughout the Muslim world.
By FRANCIS X. ROCCA
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