Maronites in Cyprus

KORMAKITIS, Cyprus (CNS) — The centuries-old Maronite Catholic community in this village in northern Cyprus is working to keep its heritage alive.

The scenery of this hillside settlement, with charming villas and lush gardens, tells the story of a once-proud and thriving community.

Although the streets are empty, the maintenance of the property is impeccable — a sign that the community still does its best to take care of what is all but a ghost town.

The 800-year-old community of about a hundred mainly elderly Cypriot Maronites remained in the occupied north of Cyprus after the 1974 Turkish invasion. Their customs, particularly their language — a mixture of Greek, Turkish, Arabic and Syriac — define their community, which is in danger of extinction.

“Ninety-five percent of our community from the North is now on the Greek side — for work or study. For the young people, it’s too difficult to return,” said Father Andreas Katsioloudis, 72, who grew up in Kormakitis, but now lives in the southern city of Limassol and returns to the village once a week to celebrate Sunday Mass.

“We can’t stay here like prisoners,” he added.

Kormakitis, home to 100 of the island’s 2,000 Maronite Catholics, is in one of the least-developed parts of Cyprus, has no bus services and is surrounded by abandoned Maronite villages.

Mass is offered daily at St. George’s Church, but on Sundays several hundred people attend, and the village comes back to life. On Easter, church attendance typically reaches 2,000.

“The church is our strength,” said Giovanni Pahita, 60, one of the youngest residents of Kormakitis. “We have nothing else. We don’t have work or schools or young people.”

After Mass, on Sunday afternoons, smartly dressed men and women sit at the coffee shop next door to the church, sipping tea or coffee and speaking among themselves in Cyprus Maronite Arabic, a disappearing language.

Daniel Kaufman, an adjunct professor of linguistics at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York, says language is one of the strongest sources of ethnic identity.

Each language, he says, “is a vehicle for an enormous amount of traditional literature which is never committed to writing.”

“Improvised poetry, such as the Lebanese ‘zajal’ to take a local example, and epics that have been handed down for generations, simply do not survive without the language that has served as their vehicle,” he says.

The Maronites of Cyprus can trace their roots back to Koura in northern Lebanon, an area best known for olive oil.

At their peak, in the mid-1500s, Maronite villages in Cyprus numbered 62 and hosted a population of 80,000, nearly matching that of the native Greek Cypriots. After the Ottoman invasion of 1871, the population dropped sharply — to 800. In the late 1800s, under British rule, a significant number returned, and by the time Cyprus achieved independence from Britain in 1960, Cyprus had about 3,500 Maronite Catholics.

The 1974 Turkish invasion and subsequent occupation of northern Cyprus created an immediate “exchange of populations,” wherein the Christians fled to the South and the Muslims to the North, regardless of the location of their ancestral homes. Those Maronites who chose to remain in the North were mainly retirees who stayed for sentimental reasons.

Since then, the Cypriot Maronites have managed to strike a delicate balance between their status as the only protected Christian community in the Muslim North, while keeping their ties with other Maronite communities, including those of southern Cyprus, Lebanon and Syria.

But even their special status would not protect them from the political reality of living in the occupied section of a divided country. To date, with the exception of Turkey, no country or company recognizes the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus.

Pahita, a food exporter, said his job is hindered by the international boycott of the Turkish-occupied North, but he said the island’s division is harder on its heritage than its economy.

“It’s sad, because we have this loss of people, and we can’t take care of our property. People need to come back. People need to return to the villages, and they need to study Arabic,” said Pahita, whose four children all now live in southern Cyprus and Britain.

But for Father Katsioloudis, the priest living in Limassol, reviving Cyprus Maronite Arabic is only part of the struggle.

Sitting at an outdoor cafe next to the Kormakitis church, along with a handful of elderly parishioners, surrounded by empty streets and mountains, he said: “It’s not only about bringing our language back. It’s our history, our customs, our dancing — all of our traditions.”

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