Greek and Turkish Cypriots Unite to Restore a Church and a Bond

Kontea, Cyprus — In the days before this island was cleft between Greek and Turkish control, the church of St. Charalambos in this tiny village was a gathering place for all. But after decades of division, and fruitless talks between political leaders, local people grew tired of watching its paint peel and its altar decay. They took matters into their own hands.

Like the church, relations between the two communities had crumbled after the island was partitioned after the Turkish military invasion of 1974. But this month, Turkish artisans’ drills buzzed. Greek woodworkers carved flourishes into the altar. After two years of work, craftsmen from both communities hurriedly polished the church in time for a grand rechristening that united nearly 500 Greek and Turkish Cypriots in a celebration under its lofty vaults — the first time the church had been used in 40 years.

“After all this time, the people are ready to reconcile,” said Xenios Konteatis, 79, a retired Greek Cypriot who lived in Kontea before the Turkish invasion forced his family into a tearful flight to what is now the Greek-controlled south.

“Of course there are still a lot of painful memories,” added Mr. Konteatis, who must drive past Turkish guards and barbed wire to reach the village, where his former home remains occupied by Turkish settlers. “But we have the will to come together.”

The extraordinary grass-roots effort to restore St. Charalambos is one of at least 40 cooperative projects that have been begun across the island to restore Greek and Turkish monuments, including mosques, that have deteriorated in divided Cyprus.

Like the one here, these projects are perhaps the most tangible sign that the long-festering recriminations in the island’s small communities have softened into a desire for healing that has far outpaced any progress by Greek and Turkish Cypriot political leaders.

Last week, President Nicos Anastasiades of Cyprus and the Turkish Cypriot leader, Dervis Eroglu, met in Nicosia, the capital, for the first time since talks were last halted in 2012. They declared that the status quo was unacceptable.

Many agree. “We cannot accept that in the 21st century, when Europe has been united after two bloody world wars, and when apartheid has been abolished in South Africa, that Cyprus is a country still divided,” said Theofilos Theofilou, a Greek Cypriot who helps run the Committee on Missing Persons with a Turkish counterpart investigating the hundreds of Greek and Turkish Cypriots who disappeared in the conflict.

But others are not holding their breath. After Turkish forces invaded following a Greek military-inspired coup, Ankara declared the northern third of the island a separate republic. It remains unrecognized by any state but Turkey, while the Greek south has joined the European Union. United Nations forces still patrol a buffer zone along the so-called Green Line, which runs through the island like a scar.

Multiple peace talks have collapsed amid disputes over power sharing, the redrawing of property boundaries and the claims of thousands of displaced people. Yet even as political efforts stumble, citizen-led peace projects like the one in Kontea are blossoming.

“Kontea represents a genuine grass-roots effort to find a common purpose,” said John M. Koenig, the American ambassador to Cyprus. “It’s an inspiring story, and more of them are happening.”

East of Kontea, Turkish Cypriots in the port city of Famagusta have joined with displaced Greeks to demand the opening of Varosha, a once-glittering beach resort that lured Elizabeth Taylor and other stars. Today, it has decayed into a veritable ghost city under barbed wire and the rifle points of Turkish troops.

Any renewal would hinge on a breakthrough in peace talks. But locals are busying themselves with plans to turn Varosha into an ecological city in the hope of spurring economic development.

“Before, there were accusations on both sides — who destroyed what, who is responsible,” said Takis Hadjidemetriou, a Greek Cypriot who leads the United Nations Technical Committee on Cultural Heritage with a Turkish counterpart. “We decided to change the climate from confrontation to cooperation, for the sake of all Cypriots.”

“The Cypriot people have no hatred in our hearts,” he continued. “Each one understands the pain of the other, which is considered the pain of Cyprus.”

Such is the case in Kontea, a village that bustled with activity until the invasion drove out Greeks. In 2003, travel restrictions across the Green Line were first eased, and Charalambos S. Pericleous, a former resident, was captivated by the possibility of working with the Turks now living here to restore the village to its former glory.

“It was the first time we came into contact with Turkish Cypriots at that level,” said Mr. Pericleous, now president of the Kontea Heritage Foundation. “We feared they might respond negatively. We were surprised that their response was very positive.”

Not everyone was on board. “We had some problems, because not everybody thought like we did,” said Ali Tayip, a Turkish Cypriot who is a supervisor of the restoration. “There were people who were against peace, and against any interaction between Greeks and Turks. But the project helped form a bond, and now they are closer to each other.”

In 2010, the community planted a Peace Park, an oasis with 1,100 carob trees and a playground. Soon after, the group restored a dilapidated Frankish cloister abutting the church, less than 500 feet from a Turkish mosque towering in the sun.

Then came St. Charalambos, symbolic to all the villages in the area and the site of a large marketplace where Greeks and Turks mingled before the division. Restoring it was an idea “that started from the bottom up — we didn’t wait to be led from above,” said Mr. Pericleous, who urged villagers “to open our minds and our hearts to peace.”

As workers put the finishing touches on the church this month, Mr. Konteatis, the retired Greek Cypriot, eagerly showed before and after photos of the reconstruction, while Mr. Tayip passed around homemade wine.

A young Turkish artisan with a broad smile presented a cake with cream and ground pistachios. A Greek carpenter cut oranges picked from nearby trees, and poured vodka into tiny cups.

On Sunday, as people from all corners of Cyprus jammed into St. Charalambos, Muslim and Christian clerics recited prayers at the restored altar. Turkish Cypriots sold doughnuts in stalls outside, while older Greek Cypriots patiently waited to light candles and bow before icons.

“Look at us,” Mr. Tayip said. “It can be this peaceful, if everybody wants it. After all, we are all human beings.”