Cyprus’ Maronite community in crisis

Cyprus’ Maronite community in crisis
Once-thriving presence began decline after turkish invasion

By Iason Athanasiadis

Special to The Daily Star
Saturday, May 15, 2004

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.