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Historic Easter church service in Turkish-held north Cyprus 'like a miracle'

FAMAGUSTA, Cyprus--With a nighttime procession lit by the glimmer of devotional candles and the flash of smartphone cameras, a church in Turkish-held northern Cyprus hosted its first Easter Mass in nearly 60 years.

Hundreds of Greek Cypriots crossed the Green Line to attend the ceremony at Famagusta's church of St. George Exorinos, in the part of the Mediterranean island occupied by Turkish forces since 1974.

Bishop Vassilis, wearing robes embroidered with gold and white and accompanied by a top Muslim cleric from the Turkish Cypriot community, led a tearful ceremony around the gardens of the 14th century church in Famagusta's medieval walled city.

Crowds of worshippers who had crossed for the historic service pressed around as the bishop delivered a mass urging reconciliation on the divided island.

Good Friday is one of the holiest dates in the Orthodox calendar, but for Pavlos Iacovou, who helped organize the service, the fact that the mass was taking place in the Turkish-held side of the island made the day “like a miracle.”

He fled his hometown as an 18-year-old in 1974, when Turkey seized Cyprus's northern third in response to an Athens-engineered coup aimed at uniting the island with Greece.

“We didn't believe it would take 40 years to return. We thought it was only for a few days and then we would be able to go home,” he said wistfully, remembering the bustling town of his childhood, where his family owned a seafront hotel.

The Famagusta of Iacovou's remembering is an idyllic place, where Turkish and Greek Cypriots coexisted peacefully, but it was intercommunal troubles before the island gained independence from Britain in 1960 that ended religious services at St George Exorinos 58 years ago.

Many of the Greek Cypriots who attended had fled the town in 1974, but despite the painful memories a jovial atmosphere settled on the church ahead of the service.

Orthodox priests milled around as smartly dressed families set out chairs in the gardens, enjoying the sunshine.

Throughout the afternoon hundreds of worshippers queued patiently to enter the tiny church to light candles and hear the liturgy.

One of the volunteers helping to marshal the crowds in the gardens estimated that 2,000 to 3,000 people had attended the service throughout the afternoon.

'An island for everyone'

Resting under the shade of a tree in the gardens as the service was relayed to those outside by loudspeaker, Constantinos Lordos, 74, a former Greek Cypriot MP, remembered coming to the church as a boy.

“This is a very touching ceremony for me. My mother used to bring me here for various ceremonies, especially for the Easter services,” he said.

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Greek Cypriots attend a Good Friday Mass in the St. George Exorinos church in Famagusta, Cyprus on Friday, April 18.

(AFP)

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