Greek Cypriot leaders made a blistering attack on Turkey for its occupation of northern Cyprus as Pope Benedict XVI began a pilgrimage to the divided island Friday bringing a message of peace to the region.
Addressing Benedict, the head of Cyprus' Orthodox Church, Archbishop Chrysostomos II said that "Turkey has barbarously invaded and conquered by force of arms 37 percent of our homeland."
Chrysostomos said that Turkey "continues to carry out its obscure plans which include the annexation of the land now under military occupation, and then a conquest of the whole of Cyprus."
His comments came as Benedict began a sensitive three-day day visit to Cyprus, an island divided between ethnic Turks and Greeks and viewed by the Vatican as a bridge between Europe and the Middle East.
Chrysostomos also said the Turks "ruthlessly sacked" Christian artworks, saying they were seeking to make Greek and Christian culture disappear from the north. He urged the pope's help to ensure protection of the sacred Christian monuments and in the struggle against the Turks.
The pope did not respond to the archbishop's remarks. Instead, in his comments at an archaeological site where St. Paul is said to have preached in the 1st century and to have been whipped by Roman soldiers, Benedict spoke of the cooperation between Catholics and Orthodox Christians.
Asked the pope's reaction to the speech, Vatican spokesman the Rev. Federico Lombardi said Benedict was aware of the archbishop's views but that he had not come to Cyprus to take political positions.
The spokesman also said that while there are no plans for Benedict to visit the Turkish-occupied north he may meet with a Muslim delegation from the area before he departs for Rome Sunday evening.
Deeply saddened by killing
Earlier, the pope also declined to blame Turkey for the killing of Catholic bishop in Turkey on the eve of the trip to Cyprus.
In remarks to journalists aboard the plane to Cyprus, Benedict said he was deeply saddened by the killing Thursday of Bishop Luigi Padovese, but believed the killing was nonpolitical and would not cloud his trip.
Turkish officials have said Padovese was killed by his driver, who has been charged with murder and appears to be mentally unstable.
The pope appeared to accept Turkey's explanation about the killing, saying it was not "a political or religious assassination, it was something personal."
"This has nothing to do with the themes and realities of this trip," the pope said. "We must not give responsibility to Turkey or the Turks."
Still, the pope spoke in his arrival remarks of the "challenges that Catholics face, sometimes in trying circumstances" in the Middle East. He made only an indirect reference to Cyprus' division, urging patience to resolve "the future of your island."
The visit is expected to be a test of whether the pope has found his diplomatic feet after his linking of Islam to violence during a speech in Germany led to outrage in the Muslim world — and nearly forced the cancellation of a trip to Turkey in 2006.
Cyprus police spokesman Michalis Katsounotos said Friday that, while there was no heightened risk to Benedict's safety following the bishop's killing, security was stepped up anyway. He said that more than 1,000 police will be mobilized for the duration of the visit.
The pope is meeting in Cyprus with prelates from the region to set an agenda for an October meeting in Rome to build a strategy to stem an exodus of Christians from the Holy Land, Iraq and elsewhere because of violence and economic hardship. The Middle East includes ancient Christian communities.
Cyprus was ethnically split in 1974 when Turkey invaded after a coup by supporters of union with Greece. Turkish Cypriots declared an independent republic in the north in 1983, but only Turkey recognizes it, and it maintains 35,000 troops there.
The pope, speaking about the problems of both the division of Cyprus and the Middle East region as a whole, said that "violence is not the solution."
The trip also comes days after the island's leaders — Greek Cypriot President Dimitris Christofias and the newly elected president of the breakaway Turkish Cypriots, Dervis Eroglu — resumed peace talks after a two-month pause.
Christofias said in his welcoming remarks that the pope's presence "conveys a powerful message of peace overcoming hatred and war."
"Cyprus is in need of your words of peace, given the difficult situation it faces in its occupied territory," he added. He too touched on the issue of destruction of Christian monuments, saying that "for a period over 35 years, our cultural and religious inheritance in the occupied areas is being systematically desecrated and destroyed, a fact that is a loss to all of humanity."
The Turkish north has also published a book showing the destruction of mosques, cemeteries and other signs of Turkish culture in the south.
There are no plans for Benedict or any other Vatican officials to visit northern Cyprus, Lombardi, said. But he did not rule out a meeting with Muslim representatives.
The Cypriot ambassador to the Holy See, George F. Poulides, said Benedict will be staying at the Vatican Nunciature, located right on the so-called Green Line in Nicosia — the U.N.-patrolled buffer zone between bullet-pocked buildings and army sentry posts separating the ethnically divided communities.
There are also problems between Cypriot Catholics and Orthodox Christians, who are dominant in the south. Some hardline Orthodox clerics, who view the pope as a heretic, say Benedict should stay in Rome to avoid provoking the island's 800,000 Orthodox.
Doctrinal, theological and political differences caused the Orthodox and Catholic churches to formally split in the 11th century. Officials from both churches have been engaged in talks in recent years to heal "The Great Schism," but opposition to reconciliation still lingers.
The Istanbul-based spiritual leader of the world's Orthodox Christians, Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I, sent a "brotherly embrace" to Benedict via a statement that also expressed "great sorrow" for the slaying of Padovese. He expressed his condolences to Benedict and said the Orthodox wanted to greet him "with deep love and great esteem."