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Migration crisis on agenda as Pope Francis begins surprise visit to Cyprus.

Pope Francis will on Thursday begin a two-day surprise visit to Cyprus, where in 45 AD apostles Paul and Barnabas introduced the Roman-ruled island’s population to Christianity.

The pope seeks to generate hope at a time of despair, conduct ecumenical dialogue with the Cypriot Orthodox Church, and reach out to migrants who have streamed into Cyprus from Middle Eastern and African battlefields seeking peace, security and decent livelihoods.

“His visit is a surprise,” Latin Patriarchal Vicar for Cyprus Fr Jerzy Kraj said. “Cyprus is a small country with a small [Catholic] community and Pope Benedict came here in June 2010 so we did not think there would be another such occasion. This is what Pope Francis is doing. He is always surprising us.”

Fr Jerzy, who is attached to the Latin (Roman Catholic) Patriarchate of Jerusalem, is well-versed in papal journeys as he was involved in visits to Palestine and Israel by Pope John Paul II in 2000, Pope Benedict XVI in 2009 and Pope Francis in 2014.

‘Pope Benedict came here in June 2010 so we did not think there would be another such occasion. ... He is always surprising us,’ Latin Patriarchal Vicar for Cyprus Fr Jerzy Kraj said. Photograph: Christina ASSI/AFP via Getty Images

‘Pope Benedict came here in June 2010 so we did not think there would be another such occasion. ... He is always surprising us,’ Latin Patriarchal Vicar for Cyprus Fr Jerzy Kraj said. Photograph: Christina ASSI/AFP via Getty Images

Fr Jerzy said Pope Francis went to Iraq as well as other countries outside Europe to extend the Vatican’s geographical reach from the centre of Europe.

He intends to organise the settlement in Italy of 50 migrants now living in Cyprus, which is the EU member hosting the largest number per capita of asylum seekers and migrants. Asylum applications have increased by 70 per cent since last year.

The Latin church, established in Cyprus by Crusaders in the 12th century, has 25,000 members: 2,500 Cypriots and the rest Filipinos, Sri Lankans, Indians, Africans, Rumanians, Poles and others. Some 7,000 Maronites, descended from Lebanese eighth-century emigrants, comprise the largest indigenous Catholic community.

Of the island’s population of 1.2 million, 73 per cent are Christian, of whom 95 per cent are Orthodox. Turkish Cypriots living in the north, which was occupied by Turkey in 1974, are Muslim.

More than 7,000 free tickets have been given out for Friday’s papal Mass in the football stadium on the edge of Nicosia, the Cypriot capital. Communion will be served by 50 priests from churches around the island, Jerusalem and Nazareth. Languages spoken during the Mass will be Italian, Greek, English and Latin.

High demand

During our interview in the leafy garden of the Holy Cross Latin Church near Paphos Gate in Nicosia’s walled city, a young couple approached and asked for tickets but were told to return later as they were at the printers. Fr Jerzy said: “Many people who are not churchgoers want to attend the Mass. We’re praying it won’t rain.”

As attendees will come from the Latin, Maronite, Armenian, Evangelical, Anglican and Orthodox communities, “this will give us new possibilities to promote ecumenicism”, he said. “We have good relations with the Orthodox Church and they showed full co-operation with us in the preparation and organisation of Pope Francis’s visit.”

Both churches revere Cyprus-born St Barnabas who, along with St Paul, evangelised Cyprus. St Barnabas was martyred in the coastal city of Salamis, and is regarded as the founder the Cypriot Orthodox Church.

A nun looks at workers preparing the stage at Nicosia’s GSP football stadium, where Pope Francis is scheduled to conduct a holy mass in the Cypriot capital later this week. Photograph: Christina ASSI/AFP

A nun looks at workers preparing the stage at Nicosia’s GSP football stadium, where Pope Francis is scheduled to conduct a holy mass in the Cypriot capital later this week. Photograph: Christina ASSI/AFP

Honoured as a head of state, Pope Francis will be briefed by Cyprus president Nicos Anastasiades on efforts to end the division of the island between Greek and Turkish Cypriots and recent Turkish provocations over the exploration for oil and gas off the Cypriot coast.

The pope will meet Cypriot Orthodox Archbishop Chrysostomos II, hold talks with Catholic leaders and greet refugees and migrants. Ahead of the pope’s visit, the Cyprus government leased land in Nicosia for the construction of a Vatican embassy.

The pope will depart for Greece on Saturday for a two-day visit.

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