Days before Pope Francis’s visit to Greece and Cyprus, one Cypriot priest has said the trip is a sign of encouragement for both the Mediterranean island’s small Catholic flock, and is a sign of the pope’s constant attention to the world’s peripheries.

For Father Jerzy Kraj, Vicar General of Holy Cross Franciscan Monastery in Nicosia, Cyprus, Pope Francis’s decision to visit the small island nation is a concrete application of “his message to go to the peripheries, to encounter small communities and to encourage them.”

When the visit was first announced, “it was a surprise” for locals, Kraj said, noting that there are other major European countries, like Spain, which still have not had a papal visit, whereas Cyprus has had two in just 11 years, after Pope Benedict XVI’s visit in June 2010.

Pope Francis will arrive in Cyprus Dec. 2, where he will stay for two days before moving on to Greece, where he will be on an official visit from Dec. 4-6.

Pointing to the theme for this week’s visit to Cyprus, “Comforting Each Other in Faith,” Kraj said the underlying message is that not only will the pope come to comfort the small Catholic minority, “but he is also coming to be comforted by us.”

“A sign of this trip is encouragement, because the pope encourages us, but he will also be encouraged by the presence of the local church,” Kraj said, insisting this encouragement will not be limited to the island’s Latin-rite Catholics, but the entire Christian community, “because ecumenism is very important.”

Christianity in Cyprus

Out of a population of roughly 1.2 million, roughly 73 percent practice Christianity. Of these Christians, roughly 95 percent belong to the Orthodox Church, whereas just one percent are Latin-rite Catholics, and .9 percent belong to either the Armenian Orthodox or Maronite Catholic churches.

Around one percent of Cypriot Christians belong to the Church of England, and about 0.6 percent are Muslim.

Cyprus historically falls under the jurisdiction of the Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem, which is currently led by Archbishop Pierbattista Pizzaballa. Kraj serves as the patriarchate’s vicar for Cyprus.

According to Kraj, the minorities officially recognized by the Republic of Cyprus and its constitution are the Apostolic Armenian Orthodox, the Latin Catholics, and the Maronite Catholics.

Citing official government statistics, Kraj said there are around 25,000 Latin-right Catholics on the Mediterranean island, and roughly 6-7,000 Maronite Catholics, who are based largely in the Turkish-controlled north.

Just 10 percent of Latin-rite Catholics in Cyprus are natives, he said, with the rest largely composed of foreign workers either from the Philippines, India, Sri Lanka, or some European countries, such as Poland or Romania.

“If we were to only count the local Latin side, we would be few and poor. Instead, our assemblies are very active,” he said.

Currently the Latin-rite Church of Cyprus, which is run largely by members of the Franciscan order, have parishes in the capitol of Nicosia, in Limassol, Larnaca, and Paphos. The pastors, himself included, also cross into the north to celebrate Sunday Masses, including some at Maronite parishes, Kraj said.

The Maronite Church has a strong presence in the large village of Kormakitis, with two nuns and a priest stationed there permanently, and they also work in other smaller villages where they don’t have a regular presence, Kraj said.

On Sundays, he said, the Franciscans will cross into the north and hold Masses in the villages of Kyrenia and Famagusta, which is where most of the African students studying at Turkish universities in the north go to worship, yielding a congregation of 4-500 for Sunday Masses.

“It’s a lively community with young people, students, who are very prepared and enthusiastic for the celebration,” Kraj said.

Ecumenism and relations with the Orthodox

Two of the biggest pillars of Pope Francis’s visit will be the issue of migration, and reenforcing relations with the Orthodox.

As a sign of his ecumenical commitment, on his second day in Cyprus Francis is scheduled to pay a courtesy visit to Archbishop Chrysostomos II, Orthodox Archbishop of Cyprus, at the Orthodox Archbishopric in Nicosia. He will then meet with the Holy Synod at the Orthodox cathedral, where he will give a speech.

That night, the pope will hold an ecumenical prayer service with migrants at the Catholic parish of the Holy Cross in Nicosia, where Kraj serves as pastor.

According to Kraj, right now relations between Catholics and Orthodox on the island nation “are good, if not optimal.” Apart from some problem areas when it comes to mixed marriages or with certain priests or bishops, “at the level of collaboration and respect for our structures, it’s very good,” he said.

Catholics currently have seven different places where they regularly celebrate Sunday Masses in southern Cyprus, three of which belong to the Latin Church – in Nicosia, Larnaca, and Limassol – while the other four are Orthodox churches or chapels that have granted Catholics access for liturgical celebrations.

“This is a sign of a concrete collaboration,” Kraj said, noting that they also often hold joint conferences on topics such as Mariology, and there is a group of dialogue on the island composed of four Christian leaders – including Orthodox Archbishop Chrysostomos, the Maronite archbishop, the Armenian archbishop, and himself as Vicar of the Latin patriarchate – and a Muslim representative.

“We don’t work miracles, but to meet and speak transmits a sign of hope that is very visible,” he said, and pointed to the pope’s Dec. 3 ecumenical prayer with migrants as an example of this collaboration.

Noting that representatives of all non-Catholic communities in Nicosia will have some sort of representation at the gathering alongside migrants and refugees, Kraj said this is proof “that if the Eucharist doesn’t unite us, charity does.”

Migration and the Cyprus problem

This charity is especially needed in Cyprus, which is a frontline arrival point for thousands of migrants and refugees arriving from the Middle East and Africa, and which is struggling to host the increasing number of asylum seekers crossing its border.

For Cyprus, the migrant issue is currently “very dramatic,” Kraj said, because “The number increases every week, above all from the northern part that is not well guarded.”

Many of these migrants come from Turkey and cross the so-called “green line” bisecting the island into a Turkish Cypriot north, which is seeking recognition as an independent state, and the Greek Cypriot south, whose government is the only one recognized by the international community, and which has been an EU member since 2004.

Cyprus has been divided by this “green line” ever since a 1974 ceasefire agreement was implemented after a Turkish invasion following a brief Greek-backed coup.

Tensions between the two sides are still felt today, with peace negotiations ongoing, even at the level of the United Nations, to find a solution to the conflict, which has divided the island for nearly five decades.

This tension is palpable even for those who weren’t around when the ceasefire was struck, Kraj said, adding, “it’s not that the people feel this, but they feel a strong wound in social reality…the new generation doesn’t know what peaceful cohabitation is like among two ethnicities, two groups.”

Currently, the hope of “dialogue is blocked, and the declarations are very clear,” he said, noting that Turkey is pushing for a two-state solution, while Greek Cyprus, which considers northern Cyprus to be an occupied territory, has resisted the suggestion.

“Right now, we are in a moment of stalemate and of difficulty in advancing politically,” Kraj said, saying that his role, and the role of all religious leaders, is not to get involved in the politics, but to insist that “peace is possible, and reconciliation is a hope for everyone.”

Kraj voiced hope that the pope during his visit will bring a message of reconciliation, saying, Francis cannot go to the north, and will likely dodge the political disputes in his speech to authorities, “but surely the message will be launched, that more bridges be built, and not walls.”

This conflict has bled over into the migrant issue, with many southerners accusing Turkey of either sending migrants over the Green Line, or failing to enforce proper controls, in a bid to destabilize and change the demography of Greek Cyprus. Those who come from the north are widely viewed by southerners as “illegal” entries.

Meanwhile, migrants and refugees who do make it over and submit applications for asylum in Europe are either sent to overcrowded camps or, when they leave the camp, they struggle to find accommodation and access to basic services, including healthcare and vaccinations against the coronavirus.

To this end, numerous charitable organizations and NGOs are working to assist families in need, including Caritas, which assists around 10,000 people, Kraj said.

“The process is very slow in Cyprus, so it is up to charitable organizations to help them and tell them how to fill out forms, how to look for help at the level of social assistance,” he said, noting that there is a migrant center at his parish of the Holy Cross, but “it’s not a large, organized structure.”

“We have some volunteers, but we are not prepared, and we do not have the economic resources to be able to face this situation,” he said.

The coronavirus crisis has also added fuel to the migration crisis, forcing migrants to stay in what are meant to be temporary camps for months of lockdown, and taxing the island’s healthcare system.

Kraj said there is no real concern over COVID for the pope’s visit, and that officials involved in the planning have made accommodations to comply with safety guidelines for the pandemic.

For Pope Francis’s major public liturgies, a large soccer stadium, the “GPS Stadium” in Nicosia, will be used, as opposed to a smaller one that was used during Benedict XVI’s visit in 2010, and those who attend the papal Mass will be required to show either proof of vaccination, or a negative COVID test to gain entry.

“We are trying to observe these rules. People will be seated next to each other, but it won’t be a crowd where everyone is standing close together, everyone will be seated,” Kraj said, noting that the stadium has a capacity to seat around 7,500.

Our Mass at the stadium is on a tribune in the west where we have 7,500 seats available for our faithful, comfortably seated.

In terms of his expectations for the pope’s visit, Kraj said, “Every trip must be considered a seed…He is coming with a message certainly of the Gospel, which is the Good News. He will proclaim the Gospel to everyone and remind each one of their responsibilities.”

However, the fruits of this visit depend on locals and how they implement the pope’s message, Kraj said, adding, “it’s not enough to hope that the pope will give a message and the fruits will (just come). This is a seed. It is giving an encouragement to the local church. After, we must work.”

“It’s not that the pope will work miracles and the whole assembly will be better. Each one of us must work, day after day, to become that,” he said. “The pope will come to listen to us, but we must also listen to him. If we collaborate in this way, there will be fruits.”