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CYPRUS: The Passing of the Dark Priest

6 minute read

Suddenly ending an era, Cyprus lurches into crisis

To irreverent British Tommies fighting to preserve colonial rule on Cyprus 25 years ago, he was Mack the Knife. His Turkish enemies reviled him as the Dark Priest, for his Byzantine politics rather than the black beard, cassock and tall kalimavki or clerical stovepipe hat that were his trademarks. Some American diplomats denigrated him as the Castro of the Mediterranean. But last week, after Archbishop Makarios III, President of Cyprus, died suddenly of a heart attack ten days before his 64th birthday, even enemies could agree with the tearful epitaph of one mourning Cypriot. “To the world,” cried the man, wiping his eyes as he left Nicosia’s Cathedral of St. John, where Makarios lay in state, “he was Cyprus.”

Makarios had been President for 17 years, the only elected President that the sun-drenched island had ever had, and so his unexpected death created yet another lurching crisis. No one else had the loyalty and affection of the 515,000 Greek Cypriots who comprise four-fifths of the population. No one else had the political power to accept compromise with the Cypriot Turks who make up the remainder of the population and who have held some 40% of the island territory since a massive Turkish invasion of Cyprus was made in their behalf in 1974.

With some foreign statesmen, Makarios could be cold and obstinate. With his own people, however, he was warm and effusive. Although he suffered a mild heart attack earlier this year, Cypriots were unprepared for his death. The vigorous archbishop had never really designated a successor. The mourning, as a result, was electric as Greeks filed past the bier, where he lay in splendid gold crown and mantle. The Greek Cypriot government declared a 40-day mourning period.

Greece’s Premier Constantine Karamanlis has steadfastly kept his distance from Cyprus since an attempted putsch against Makarios by the military junta that preceded him, but in Athens last week the government sympathetically declared six days of mourning. In Turkey, the new government of Premier Suleyman Demirel tactfully decided neither to gloat nor to salute his adversary. Most Turks, however, agreed with an Ankara grocer who declared that “God has finally heard our prayers.”

For the archbishop, it was fitting that those who for so long found it difficult to live with him were suddenly so worried about living without him. But this was not surprising: Makarios has been the hub of Cyprus’ political ambiguities ever since he was elected archbishop of the Orthodox Church of Cyprus in 1950 and assumed the traditional title of ethnarch (literally ethnic or national leader). Like a medieval Pope, the ethnarch is both a secular and religious leader. Makarios practiced the politics but preferred the spiritual title. He wanted to be addressed formally as “Your Beatitude.”

Makarios’ origins were humble. He was born Mikhail Mouskos into a peasant family in the village of Panayia. A bright student, young Mouskos entered the monastery of Kykko in the Troodos Mountains at 13 and took the religious name Makarios, which means “blessed” in Greek. He chose to become a “black” or celibate priest rather than one of the “white” priests, who are free to marry but cannot be consecrated bishops. Makarios rose fast: he was sent to Athens to study law and theology, later went to Boston University. In 1948 he was summoned home to turbulent Cyprus to become a bishop.

Makarios’ concern for his flock was always political. He once said: “I would consort with the devil himself if it would keep Cyprus and its people independent.” In 1956, as the fighting peaked between the British army and the Cypriots, Anthony Eden’s government accused the ethnarch of fomenting rebellion and exiled him to the remote Seychelles Islands 3,000 miles from home. But when the British gave up the fight three years later, Makarios was elected President of the newly independent Republic of Cyprus.

His followers had fought for enosis (union) between Cyprus and Greece, but the agreement on independence forbade that. Instead it guaranteed a separate Cyprus and a political share to the Turkish minority. Ancient ethnic hatreds, however, soon brought the two communities into bloody. conflict. The United Nations dispatched a force to patrol the “Green Line” that separated the two ethnic groups. But the ceaseless hostility on Cyprus crippled NATO’s eastern flank in the Mediterranean.

While the Turks marshaled their own forces, the Greeks fell to fighting among themselves. In preindependence days, Makarios battled the British with the legendary Colonel George Grivas, whose EOKA (for National Organization of Cypriot Fighters) provided the archbishop’s guerrilla legions. After independence, Grivas was banished to Athens as part of the settlement. He later returned secretly to oppose Makarios with a new EOKA-B. After the 1967 coup of the colonels in Greece itself, assassination attempts and other plots against the archbishop multiplied. In 1974 the Athens junta mounted a coup that sent Makarios into hasty exile once again. But five days later (TIME, July 29, 1974) the coup precipitated a Turkish invasion. The result was a humiliating defeat for the dominant Greek Cypriots. When Makarios returned, he found a battered country that had abandoned the idea of any kind of Greco-Turkish accord.

Makarios was scarcely guiltless in the 1974 war. He had effectively blocked Turkish rights and prevented outsiders from seeking reasonable settlements. His arrogance of 1963 was replaced by the sorrow of 1974, and his new credo was, as he told TIME’S Dean Brelis at the time, “to live with the reality of what is and to protect that which we hold.

“I know I will not see an independent unified Cyprus in my lifetime,” Makarios added, and he was right. In 1975 the Turks declared their own Turkish Federated State of Cyprus; last week the only notice this rump government took of Makarios’ passing was to announce flatly that it would not recognize his successor as the leader of a united Cyprus.

Constitutionally the job fell for the moment to Spyros Kyprianou, 46, president of the house of representatives. But Kyprianou has heart problems himself. At least two other candidates also want the job, and the Greek vote is split among half a dozen factions. The four major political parties proposed that the solution might be to let Kyprianou hold the post until February, when an election would have been held in any case.

Whoever inherits Makarios’ job will be no new Dark Priest. But his problems will be enough to tax a saint. Although the Greek Cypriot community has recovered economically from the 1974 Turkish invasion, the ethnic division of the island is deadlocked. And the broader Greco-Turkish split that has wounded NATO shows no sign of healing. The course ahead for the next President is one that Makarios bequeathed him, and that will surely be a course of serpentine prospects.

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