20 May 2010 by Brooke Anderson
KORMAKITIS, Cyprus (CNS) — The centuries-old Maronite Catholic community in this village in northern Cyprus is working to keep its heritage alive.
The scenery of this hillside settlement, with charming villas and lush gardens, tells the story of a once-proud and thriving community.
Although the streets are empty, the maintenance of the property is impeccable — a sign that the community still does its best to take care of what is all but a ghost town.
The 800-year-old community of about a hundred mainly elderly Cypriot Maronites remained in the occupied north of Cyprus after the 1974 Turkish invasion. Their customs, particularly their language — a mixture of Greek, Turkish, Arabic and Syriac — define their community, which is in danger of extinction.
Ninety-five percent of our community from the North is now on the Greek side — for work or study. For the young people, its too difficult to return, said Father Andreas Katsioloudis, 72, who grew up in Kormakitis, but now lives in the southern city of Limassol and returns to the village once a week to celebrate Sunday Mass.
We cant stay here like prisoners, he added.
Kormakitis, home to 100 of the islands 2,000 Maronite Catholics, is in one of the least-developed parts of Cyprus, has no bus services and is surrounded by abandoned Maronite villages.
Mass is offered daily at St. Georges Church, but on Sundays several hundred people attend, and the village comes back to life. On Easter, church attendance typically reaches 2,000.
The church is our strength, said Giovanni Pahita, 60, one of the youngest residents of Kormakitis. We have nothing else. We dont have work or schools or young people.
After Mass, on Sunday afternoons, smartly dressed men and women sit at the coffee shop next door to the church, sipping tea or coffee and speaking among themselves in Cyprus Maronite Arabic, a disappearing language.
Daniel Kaufman, an adjunct professor of linguistics at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York, says language is one of the strongest sources of ethnic identity.
Each language, he says, is a vehicle for an enormous amount of traditional literature which is never committed to writing.
Improvised poetry, such as the Lebanese ‘zajal’ to take a local example, and epics that have been handed down for generations, simply do not survive without the language that has served as their vehicle, he says.
The Maronites of Cyprus can trace their roots back to Koura in northern Lebanon, an area best known for olive oil.
At their peak, in the mid-1500s, Maronite villages in Cyprus numbered 62 and hosted a population of 80,000, nearly matching that of the native Greek Cypriots. After the Ottoman invasion of 1871, the population dropped sharply — to 800. In the late 1800s, under British rule, a significant number returned, and by the time Cyprus achieved independence from Britain in 1960, Cyprus had about 3,500 Maronite Catholics.