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Cyprus Cyprus Talks

Biden meets religious leaders

US Vice President Joe Biden meeting religious leaders

By Jean Christou

US Vice President Joe Biden’s first stop on Thursday was the Archbishopric in Nicosia where he met for over an hour with the leaders of the island’s main faiths, Greek Orthodox, Turkish Cypriot Islam, Maronite, Armenian and Latin.

Security was unprecedented for Cyprus as each media representative had their bags searched at the main gate and again inside subjected to more searches and a sniffer dog before being allowed in the main lobby of the building. Outside the streets were cleared of traffic although pedestrians, tourists, school children and other onlookers were evident on either end of the road outside the gate. Old men sat outside nearby coffeeshops to have a look.

Before Biden arrived the religious leaders lined up to greet him with Archbishop Chrysostomos joking around with some of the local media. When Biden’s convoy – around 10 police motorcycles, half a dozen squad cars, two vans from the bomb disposal unit, around 25 other vehicles and a strange looking black van – arrived surrounded by his security team, he entered the lobby and shook hands with each of the religious leaders who all in turn said: Welcome to Cyprus”. Biden then turned to head off but was persuaded by the media to pose for a line up photo with the clerics, which apart from the Archbishop, included Mufti Talip Atalay,  Maronite Archbishop Joseph Soueif, Armenian Archbishop Varoutzian Cherkelian, and the Latin representative in Cyprus Father Zacchaeus Toulninof.

The media was then ejected from the premises as no statements were to be made after the round table discussion with the clergy. A White House official said earlier this week that the Vice President saw the cooperation and dialogue by religious leaders as a positive example of the kind of trust, reconciliation and respect that can be built across divides.

Outside the Archbishopric, people began to gather opposite the gates. Schoolchildren gawked at the police motorcycles and the mysterious black van. Local police chatted about Wednesday night’s football match as they were quizzed by onlookers who could not get a signal on their phones. One of the officers said the signal had been jammed as a security precaution in case of remote bomb detonation by phone. The jamming area covered around 200 metres around the building. “What’s in there?” one woman asked of the black van. “I heard there’s men in hazard suits”. The officer just smiled but didn’t reply.

After the round table discussion, Archbishop Chrysostomos held a one-on-one for ten minutes with Biden where, according to the Cyprus News Agency, the Church leader expressed his views on the Cyprus issue and ‘set his red lines’, although he did not go into detail on that. “These are known,” he said later but spoke of the need for a “balanced solution”. “Otherwise the Greek Cypriot side will be wronged and the Turkish side will look for the opportunity to overturn things,” he said.

Speaking some time after Biden had left around noon, the Archbishop said Biden had offered his support for a solution. He said the religious leaders had expressed their views to Biden at the round-table discussion and that he had encouraged them to continue to work together.

“We will work to this end,” said the Archbishop, adding that the goal was to see Christians and Muslims on the island have access to their religious sites both in the government-controlled areas, and in the north of the island.

“But a solution must be reciprocal and as fair as possible,” the Church leader said. Asked if the issue of energy could act as a catalyst for a solution, the Archbishop said he believed so, and so did the US Vice President.
The Archbishop said he would be briefing President Nicos Anastasiades on the content of the talks.

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