With a nighttime procession lit by the glimmer of devotional candles and the flash of smartphone cameras, a church in Turkish-held northern Cyprus hosted its first Easter Mass in nearly 60 years.
Hundreds of Greek Cypriots crossed the Green Line separating the north from the south of Cyprus to attend the ceremony at the Church of St George Exorinos in Famagusta, a city in the part of the Mediterranean island occupied by Turkish forces since 1974.
Wearing robes embroidered with gold and white and accompanied by a top Muslim cleric from the Turkish Cypriot community, Famagusta Bishop Vassilis led a tearful ceremony around the gardens of the 14th-century church in the medieval part of the city.
Crowds of worshipers who had crossed the line for the historic service pressed around the bishop as he delivered a Mass urging reconciliation on the divided island.
Good Friday is one of the holiest dates in the Orthodox calendar, but for Pavlos Iacovou, who helped organize the service, the Mass being held on the Turkish-controlled side of the island made the day “like a miracle.”
Iacovou fled his hometown as an 18-year-old in 1974, when Turkey seized Cyprus’ northern third in response to an Athens-engineered coup aimed at uniting the island with Greece.
“We didn’t believe it would take 40 years to return. We thought it was only for a few days and then we would be able to go home,” he said wistfully, remembering the bustling town of his childhood, where his family owned a seafront hotel.
The Famagusta of Iacovou’s remembering is an idyllic place, where Turkish and Greek Cypriots coexisted peacefully, but intercommunal troubles before the island gained independence from Britain in 1960 ended religious services at St George Exorinos 58 years ago.
Many of the Greek Cypriots who attended had fled the town in 1974, but despite the painful memories a jovial atmosphere settled on the church ahead of the service.
Throughout the afternoon hundreds of worshipers queued patiently to enter the tiny church to light candles and hear the liturgy.
One of the volunteers helping to marshal the crowds in the gardens estimated that 2,000 to 3,000 people attended the service throughout the afternoon.
Resting under the shade of a tree in the gardens as the service was relayed to those outside by loudspeaker, Constantinos Lordos, 74, a former Greek-Cypriot legislator, remembered coming to the church as a boy.
“This is a very touching ceremony for me. My mother used to bring me here for various ceremonies, especially for the Easter services,” he said.
Lordos too was forced to leave his hometown, but he said he bore no bitterness.
“I feel that the island belongs to all of us, it doesn’t belong to anyone in particular,” Lordos said.
The worshipers crowded onto pews in the dimly lit church were joined by a clutch of Turkish and Greek-Cypriot politicians, as well as several foreign dignitaries, including the US ambassador and a UN representative.
Among those inside the church were Famagusta mayor-in-exile of Alexis Galanos and his Turkish-Cypriot counterpart Mayor Oktay Kayalp, who worked together to set up the Mass.
“Without exaggerating the importance, I think this is one step ahead” toward a solution to the division of Cyprus, Gallanos said.
Events where Greek and Turkish Cypriots can meet peacefully are a message to negotiators in the island’s UN-brokered peace talks that were relaunched in February, Kayalp said.