NICOSIA, Cyprus — On the Greek Cypriot side of this divided island, Pope Francis celebrated an open-air Mass on Friday morning, urging openness to migrants seeking a better life.
As he finished, the Muslim call to prayer resounded over the arched courtyards and dusty streets in the Turkish Cypriot north across the guarded border. There, university students from Africa expressed hope that they could one day leave Cyprus’s economically struggling north and reach the European Union.
The pope’s pleas about receptiveness and compassion were helping their cause, said Chloe Samaka, 30, a political science student from Cameroon, as she walked to class in the north. “When the pope speaks, it’s not only religious, it’s political.”
In his two days in Cyprus, Francis has sought to inspire the Republic of Cyprus, a European Union member state, to embrace its history as a crossroads for different cultures, enriched by new migrants, and to be a model for the rest of Europe.
But that is a tall order on an island laden with geopolitical tension, centuries of animosity and accusations by the south that Turkey is using migrants and asylum seekers as new political ammunition in a deeply entrenched conflict.
This island, ethnically split between the Greek-aligned south and a north controlled by Turkey and recognized only by Turkey, is in some respects a microcosm for the migration trends confronting Europe; the accusation that migrants are being used as pawns is reminiscent of last month’s tensions on the Belarus-Poland border.
And unlike Francis, and the many migrants who see him as a tireless champion, the Cypriot government has viewed the increase in migration through Turkey as an existential threat, rather than as a source of spiritual and cultural replenishment.
On Friday evening, Francis seemed to have had enough.
Speaking in a parish where the pews were filled with migrant families, several of whom the Vatican had arranged to take back to Italy, Francis at first spoke about how the island was generous, but also noted the small population and added that it “can’t do everything” and that “we must understand the limits.”
But then, putting aside his speech, he spoke in unusually blunt terms. “We cannot keep quiet” about a “culture of indifference,” Francis said. He looked at the pews, filled with men and women from Africa and the Middle East, some holding crying babies. “Looking at you, I see the faces of suffering” he said, calling their plight “the story of a slavery, a universal slavery.”
Speaking with building emotion, he listed the terrible conditions many migrants endure to get to Europe. Some were pushed back after spending their savings, and captured in migrant centers that he likened to “concentration camps, real concentration camps” where women are sold and men are tortured.
He said that people who read about the Nazi death camps and Stalin’s gulag ask “how could this happen?”
“Brothers and sisters, it is happening now, in the neighboring coasts,” he added.
Those who were not captured, he said, crossed a Mediterranean Sea that “has become a great cemetery.”
“The worst is that we are getting used to this,” he said with exasperation. “To get used to it is a grave disease, very grave, and there is no antibiotic to this disease.”
He added, “It’s my responsibility to help open eyes.”
Cyprus’s asylum seekers and migrants account for nearly 4 percent of the population, a primacy Francis has tried to cast as a gift, but which the Greek Cypriot government clearly considers a burden. In 2020, the country’s interior minister, Nicos Nouris lamented that percentage, the highest in Europe per capita, in a cabinet meeting and implored the European Commission to come to its aid.
The government has said a vast majority of migrants who came into Cyprus in the first 10 months of 2021 did so through the porous portions of the U.N. buffer zone, also known as the Green Line. And it said that 9,270 of the 10,868 people who made the crossing did so illegally, and that 30 percent of them were single men between age 25 and 40.
Migrants arrive primarily on small boats, from Turkey, Syria and most recently, Lebanon, and then smugglers and traffickers bring them to the Republic of Cyprus, according to Emilia Strovolidou, the spokeswoman in Cyprus for the U.N. refugee agency. Some, especially those from African countries, fly to northern Cyprus, on student visas provided by traffickers.
The government has sought to stave off what it calls “demographic change” and has blamed migrants for socio-economic erosion and surges in crime.
In November, the government said it had reached an emergency situation, though the numbers were far from daunting. The government appealed to the E.U. for the right to suspend asylum applications by individuals entering the country illegally.
It also pushed for the immediate relocation of some asylum seekers to other European member states as well as repatriation of asylum seekers to their countries of origin.
“Because Turkey does not recognize the Republic of Cyprus,” said Marios Pelekanos, a spokesman for the Cypriot government, “we can’t use the agreement made between Turkey and the European Union to send these people back to Turkey.” He argued that “Cyprus is now facing the biggest problem in Europe.”
Just as Francis hoped to use the trip to amplify his vision of migration, the government, Mr. Pelekanos said, hoped to “take advantage of the visit of the pope” to highlight the challenges migration presents. On Thursday, with the pope sitting beside him, President Nicos Anastasiades of Cyprus detailed a long list of grievances against Turkey.
According to the U.N. commission, this year, 8,605 people had applied for refugee and asylum status and another 6,483 were pending. Since 2002, more than 96,000 people have applied. Of these, only 15,333 have been accepted. The majority, according to Ms. Strovolidou, are Syrian though many come from Africa.
Asylum seekers are processed at the Pournara reception center, “where the conditions are hard because of overpopulation,” she said.
“We echo the pope’s compassionate plea for solidarity to the most marginalized people: refugees, the forcibly displaced and migrants,” she said.
But the public mood is hardening.
Saida Memedova, 19, who works in a pastry shop right on the southern side of the border, said she did not mind the migrants but added that many had no jobs and turned to crime. She is an asylum seeker from Azerbaijan, and said the problem between Turkey and Cyprus could be fixed only by the two countries.
“People from the outside have no influence,” she said, “It’s the same thing with the pope. He’s from the outside. He hasn’t lived the issue.”
In a 2019 survey titled “Perceptions of Cypriots About Refugees and Migrants,” the U.N. observed that since 2015 the wider public’s general feelings toward migrants “are today neutral to negative.”
The growing anti-migrant sentiment is fueling an increase in support of hard-right parties.
“I think it’s fair to say that Cyprus is overwhelmed — any place would be overwhelmed — with the dramatic increase in numbers,” said Elizabeth Kassinis, executive manager of Caritas Cyprus, a Catholic charity group that is in the buffer zone between the north and south, and whom the pope thanked by name on Friday.
She said Cyprus had now joined Italy and Greece as front line states. “And the local systems, the welfare system, the labor system, the economy because of Covid, all of them have been overwhelmed by the sheer numbers,” she said.
On Friday morning, Francis seemed to try and enlist other Christian leaders in his mission. At the Holy Synod of the Orthodox cathedral, the pope, 84, walked beside Archbishop Chrysostomos II, the leader of the Orthodox Church of Cyprus, toward the altar, where under gold-leafed icons and chandeliers he addressed other Orthodox leaders in black robes.
“Certainly, where our relations are concerned, history has opened broad furrows between us,” said Francis, who said God wanted people “not to grow resigned to our past divisions” but to work together to heal them. He said that working together, through charity and the “promotion of human dignity,” would only bring them closer together.
He then went to Nicosia’s GSP stadium, where thousands of faithful, including a large Filipino population, sang and applauded him during Mass. With the president in the crowd, he warned them that individualism and self-interest led to spiritual blindness.
“If we remain divided,” he said, “if each person thinks only of himself or herself, or his or her group, if we refuse to stick together, if we do not dialogue and walk together, we will never be completely healed of our blindness.”
Before he left, he told the gathering that the visit had imbued him with an atmosphere that he called typical of the Holy Land — of those who were open to the future and “share this greater vision with those most in need.”
“I think in particular of the migrants in search of a better life,” he said.
Elisabetta Povoledo contributed reporting from Rome