A VISIT to Cyprus this week by Archbishop Desmond Tutu has rekindled a debate over whether a South African-style truth-and-reconciliation process might be appropriate, if reunification of the divided island is ever achieved.
But the indications are that differences in the status of the Church in the two countries would necessitate changes to the South African model before it could be adopted in Cyprus.
Archbishop Tutu was accompanied by a former President of the United States, Jimmy Carter, and by the United Nations mediator Lakhdar Brahimi, an Algerian. They visited Cyprus to encourage the leaders of the Greek and Turkish Cypriot communities to achieve a settlement.
Talks brokered by the UN are under way in what both sides say is a positive atmosphere.
At the same time, steps are being taken to prepare the communities for a time when they might live together again. A debate has begun among Greek Cypriots over how school textbooks might be rewritten to provide pupils with a more balanced view of the island’s history.
Also, the UN is pursuing a scheme to find and identify the bodies of both Greek and Turkish Cypriots who have been missing since the ethnic conflict of the 1960s and the Turkish invasion of 1974.
Many Cypriots say that the identification of the remains of the missing and the return of bodies to families for burial is an important step towards coming to terms with the past. But some argue that this is not enough.
Emine Erk, a Turkish Cypriot barrister, represents the families of 74 Turkish Cypriots killed in 1963. “What has happened so far is strictly a humanitarian mission,” she says. “It does not extend to any criminal investigation. We want the Greek Cypriot authorities to open an investigation into what happened and to find out who is responsible.”
But Nicos Trimikliniotis, a Greek Cypriot academic who has made a study of the truth-and-reconciliation process in South Africa, does not believe that this particular method is appropriate for Cyprus.
For a start, he says, any peace settlement in Cyprus is likely to be very different from that in South Africa. In the latter case, “there was an agreement about the end of apartheid, and there was a clear victor, even though both sides claimed there was not.
“In the context of Cyprus, there would be a much more balanced agreement, given the balance of forces. So any truth-and-reconciliation process would need to reflect this reality.”
The other key difference between South Africa and Cyprus is the part played by the Church. In the view of Dr Trimikliniotis: “In South Africa, religion was a unifying factor, while in Cyprus it is not, and is often used in the opposite way. The historical role of the [Greek Orthodox] Church has not been a positive one in terms of promoting reconciliation.” Any initiative, therefore, would have to build on “the sense of Cypriotness felt by the two sides — the idea of a common secular space”.
Greek Cypriot church leaders have never been shy of entering the political arena. In presidential elections last year, the Church campaigned in favour of the incumbent leader, the nationalist Tassos Papadopoulos.
But church leaders have been noticeably absent from the debate on how reconciliation between the two communities might be achieved in the event of a political settlement. They have also opposed some of the measures aimed at improving relations between Greek and Turkish Cypriots in the short term.
For example, proposals to rewrite Greek Cypriot textbooks have been sharply criticised by the church hierarchy. Archbishop Chrysostomos II said the changes would dilute the “Greekness” of public education. “The ethnic and religious roots of this land run too deep, and it is not easy for someone to change them like that. We have no need for modern-day saviours to save our education, and anyone who attempts it will toil in vain,” he said.