New Statesman
31 May 1999

Colin Smith in Nicosia is surprised by the extent of Orthodox solidarity with Serbian brothers.

As I emerged the other day from the Yugoslav embassy in Nicosia, where I had been checking on the progress of my application for a press visa, I collided with a party of young Greek Cypriots going in. One of them was carrying an open envelope bulging with cash, and they all wished to shake my hand. There was an awkward moment while I explained why I was unworthy of their largesse, and then they hurried on inside.

"We, the Serbs, are blessed to have God in heaven and Hellens on earth. You the Hellens have us Serbs as your friends. We will continue the struggle you undertook in 1974 against the Muslims until Constantinople becomes a centre for Orthodoxy."

Thus spake Bishop Nicolas of Sarajevo when he visited Cyprus in July 1994, the 20th anniversary of the Turkish invasion that has left the island partitioned between its Muslim Turk and Orthodox Greek inhabitants ever since.

For those of us unaware of the bonding power of the Orthodox faith across language and national barriers, the success of Bishop Nicolas's visit came as a surprise. Greek Cypriots are a well-educated and prosperous bunch. They are westernised in appearance and as hedonistic as the average citizen of the EU, an organisation most Greek Cypriot politicians are anxious to join as soon as possible. There is an abundance of churches, but not much visible piety about the place. They are certainly not religious fanatics.

Yet the hosannas that greeted the Bishop of Sarajevo gave early warning of unspent passions aroused by a quarrel that is older than Christian-Muslim rivalry. It is the visceral anti-westernism dating from the split between the true church of Byzantium and its Roman schism that is now breaking through the centuries like grass through concrete. It is the prejudice of the Orthodox hierarchy who, shortly before the fall of Constantinople in 1453, consoled themselves with the thought: "Better the Ottoman turban than the Latin mitre." It is the hatred for Rome that the Russian Orthodox church retained after 70 years in the communist deep-freeze.

In Greece, a member of both Nato and the EU, a recent poll revealed that 95 per cent of those canvassed were against the Nato air strikes - by far the largest number of dissenters in any EU country.

Ever since the Nato bombing started, the solidarity displayed by the Greek Cypriots for their Serbian brethren has come as a revelation for those of us who live among them. While the world listens to the shocked survivors of Milosevic's Einsatzgruppen relating their tales of murder and rape, in Cyprus "bundles for Belgrade" and schoolchildren bussed to demonstrations outside the US embassy have become the norm. A pizza chain has added "Viva Serbia" to its billboards. After the Chinese embassy was hit, a jeweller in Limassol received a gratifying amount of publicity by putting up a notice in English: "No Americans will be served today."

Almost all the media seem to have been convinced by Serbian claims that the Kosovar Albanian refugees have fled their homes because of the bombing; TV news pictures are of Serbian survivors sitting in the rubble of Nato's collateral damage.

As soon as the bombs started to fall, Archbishop Chrysostomos, primate of the Orthodox church in Cyprus, set the tone by announcing he had established a fund for the Serbs.

This makes no sense at all. If anybody has ever been the victim of premeditated ethnic cleansing it is the Greek Cypriots, of whom at least 170,000 were terrorised out of the northern part of the island when the Turkish army arrived in 1974.

Archbishop Chrysostomos, a septuagenarian whose grasp on earthly affairs sometimes appears a bit hazy, seemed to imply that the Nato assault on his Serbian brothers was all a Jewish plot. Later, after a meeting with the Israeli ambassador, His Beatitude said he had been misunderstood.

One of the first to respond to a call from a football club for volunteers to fight alongside the Serbs was Dr Marios Matsakis, a London-trained coroner and deputy in the House of Representatives. Matsakis, who during his time in Britain served in the Territorial Army as a medical officer in the Parachute Regiment, explained that it was a "symbolic gesture".

Others took more direct action. The director of a private college decided to strike back at the "enemy" with his own version of ethnic cleansing - by suspending 50 American and British students.

Then we had Spyros Kyprianou's Amazing Yellow Ribbon Caper. Kyprianou, the first foreign minister of independent Cyprus and its president between 1977-88, was one day the main speaker at a "No to Nato barbarism" rally and the next rushing off to Belgrade to bring home the three American soldiers captured on the Macedonian border. Inevitably, Milosevic did not consider Kyprianou, a sick man in his mid-sixties, important enough to award him the prize that three weeks later he would give to the Reverend Jesse Jackson.

But perhaps Kyprianou's trip did do some good for the Greek Cypriots, reminding the government that countries, like people, tend to be judged by the company they keep. An attempt is being made to follow the example laid down by the Greek prime minister Costas Simitis, who asked the electorate to "put Greece first".

"We are inclined in Cyprus to see only one side of the tragedy," admitted the foreign minister Dr Ioannis Kasoulides.

A small step for mankind, but a large one for Byzantium.

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