Maronites in the devided Cyprus
Maronites slip through
By Ayla Jean Yackley
SwissInfo International News, May 22, 2002 -- KORMAKITIS, Cyprus
northern Cypriot village awakens on Sundays to the sound of
children's laughter echoing off abandoned houses, but the streets
fall silent in the evening when a few hundred Maronites leave their
ancestral home to return across the border to the Greek south.
Cyprus's Maronites are the only minority able to travel between the
Greek south and the Turkish north. Straddling the divide, they
belong fully neither to one side nor the other. Just 136 Maronites,
most of them elderly, still live in Kormakitis. Their sons and
daughters have left this far-flung peninsula in the island's
northwest corner, driven out by fighting between Greeks and Turks
and decades of economic sanctions. The Maronites had no direct stake
in the conflict that tore Cyprus apart nearly 30 years ago. "We have
paid the price, we have suffered for the problems between Greeks and
Turks," said Antonis, who was born in Kormakitis or Korucam in
"Imagine coming to the house where you were born, where your mother
still lives, but you cannot stay," he said. Maronites who move south
are not permitted to return. Lemon and myrtle trees grow in gardens
behind low-lying walls. Yellow sandstone houses with blue shutters
and doors are far outnumbered by the forsaken homes with collapsed
roofs, wild fig trees straining at living room walls.
The rolling hills of the Kormakitis peninsula, blanketed in pine
groves and barley, seem a long way from the U.N. patrolled Green
Line, where Secretary-General Kofi Annan sat last week with
President Glafcos Clerides and Turkish Cypriot leader Rauf Denktash
to negotiate a peace deal. The two veteran leaders have been meeting
since January in a bid to reunite the island in some form but hopes
have dimmed that talks will yield any real progress ahead of a June
deadline. It is unclear what the Maronites would gain from any
settlement. They have no official representation at the talks and
have no legal status as their own community. When the 1960
constitution was drafted after Cyprus's independence from Britain,
the island's non-Turkish minorities, which also include Armenians
and Latins, all opted to be treated as part of the majority Greek
"Maronites have not had a direct role (in the talks), and they are
concerned their positions are not taken into account," said Madeline
Garlick, a U.N. political officer in Cyprus.
Ethnic violence in the 1960s culminated in 1974, with a Greek
Cypriot coup and a subsequent Turkish invasion. Thousands of Turkish
Cypriots fled from enclaves in the north; Greek Cypriots were forced
to resettle in the south. A few thousand Maronites clung to their
remote homesteads until 1980, but most families soon headed south to
educate their children and find work as an international embargo
took its toll on the self-declared Turkish Republic of Northern
Cyprus (TRNC). Turkey garrisons 30,000 soldiers in the north and is
the only country to recognise the TRNC. The international community
considers the south's government the sole legitimate authority.
Maronites fled to Cyprus in waves during the Middle Ages to escape
violence at the hands of other Christians, Islamic invaders and the
Crusaders en route to the Holy Land. The colony peaked in the 13th
century when at least 18,000 Maronites lived in more than 60
villages, according to the Maronite Research Institute in
Washington, D.C. The Catholic sect faired poorly after the Ottoman
conquest of 1571 as Greek Orthodoxy gained ascendancy. Villages
dropped from 33 to four by the time the British arrived in 1878.
Many converted to Islam or Greek Orthodoxy, the island's only
recognised minority, to escape taxation or persecution. Others
returned to Lebanon, said Mete Hatay, a local historian who has
extensively researched the Maronites of Cyprus. "The Maronites of
the Kormakitis are the last. They survived in isolation," Hatay
TIES TO LAND
Today less than 6,000 Maronites live in Cyprus, most
transplanted from Kormakitis to Nicosia suburbs in the south. The
old have remained behind, determined to persevere, to await an
"Many have a strong attachment to their village. They don't want to
lose control of their homes or property," Garlick said. "There is a
great deal of sadness among the community." Turkish Cypriot law bars
Maronites from passing on houses and fields to family in the south.
"Settling (Maronites') property rights will be part of the
settlement," said Sadettin Topukcu, who oversees minority affairs in
the TRNC. Authorities hold property in receivership when an owner
dies, but do not sell or give it away. Property settlement is one of
the main obstacles to an agreement. Any eventual deal between Greek
and Turkish Cypriots will probably consist of some restitution of
seized property to maintain the integrity of the two zones.
"Turks don't realise the difference between Maronites and Greek
Cypriots. They see them as the same thing," Hatay said. Maronites'
relative freedom to move about has caused suspicions on both sides.
Two Maronites were jailed in 1999 by a Greek Cypriot court on spying
charges. Turkish soldiers man checkpoints on the road to Kormakitis.
"They have no leadership similar to that of Turkish Cypriots and
Greek Cypriots, no backing of a 'motherland,'" Garlick said. They
practice religion freely in the north, she said. The U.N. conducts
humanitarian patrols, delivering mail and food to Kormakitis and
three more spots where 26 other Maronites remain. Villagers choose
their own leader to coordinate with authorities, and a Turkish
Cypriot doctor checks in weekly. "They are treated like any other
citizen," Topukcu said. But he acknowledges they also bear the scars
of the divided land. "All Cypriots are used to seeing their children
move away. The Maronites suffer along with the rest of us."
"It is so quiet here when the children leave. It is just us and
the empty houses," said Sister Pierra Ratrioloudi, the 72-year-old
nun who tends the Church of St George in Kormakitis. Around 400
Maronites pay a small visa fee on Sundays to attend mass at St
George. During holidays the congregation swells to 1,000 people as
generations return to the homeland. Toddlers clamber through packed
pews, and dark-haired teenagers mouth words to plaintive hymns sung
in Syriac and Aramaic, the language of the earliest Christians.
Michalis Skollou, 25, was one of the last to attend the village
school here before it was closed in the early 1990s. "I feel sad but
I wouldn't be satisfied here now. When peace comes to Cyprus, I will
definitely live in Kormakitis."