The religious leaders of Cyprus need to be heard and their proposals should be taken into consideration, Salpy Eskidjian Weiderud, Executive Director of the Religious Track on the Cyprus Peace Process  (RTCYPP) office and 2019 International Religious Freedom Award recipient has told the Cyprus News Agency (CNA), stressing that religious freedom must not be a hostage of the Cyprus talks.

“People need to look at the religious leaders’ proposals, own them and give them oxygen,” Weiderud noted in an interview with CNA, adding that the tipping point of the RTCYPP, which started ten years ago, was when the religious leaders started to advocate for each other’s rights, meet each other with respect and as brothers.

“Religion cannot be divided. Religious leaders should not be divided. We will always have churches and mosques at both sides of the divide.  For faith communities these places will always be sacred.  Ignoring this reality and disrespecting the rights of religious communities will only be an obstacle to peacebuilding,” she said.

“Advancing religious freedom, the way the RTCYPP is doing it, will only help the peace process.  Most important is for the authorities to recognize the rights of faith communities to administer, to be able to visit and pray at their places of worship and to be able to care for them and even restore them,” Weiderud added.

Asked if there are further ways in which the religious leaders can tangibly contribute to the peace process, she noted that “the religious leaders have made some historic joint statements on the missing, on violence against women, on terror attacks and have welcomed the talks to reach a comprehensive agreement for the bi-zonal, bicommunal federation.”

“They entered into a discussion, they made concrete proposals but neither the faith communities, nor women’s groups or others followed up on those statements to turn them into action,” she added.

Weiderud also said that there are areas in which the religious leaders want to do more together, like on refugees, victims of trafficking and the missing. Together they can do more on memory, forgiveness, reconciliation and building a culture of peace, she added. She also stressed that “religious leaders can play a very significant role in truth and reconciliation processes.”

Weiderud, who received the International Religious Freedom Award in Washington by US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, noted, that “peacebuilding is a quiet, slow, behind the scenes process.”

It is very important to ensure that this is sustained and supported, so that the religious leaders continue to work together with determination and courage. “They need the political authorities to listen to their joint pleas. Sadly, there are people with influence who question their joint efforts, accuse them because they stand up for each other. There are many challenges. We are there to encourage, to support, to mediate and to facilitate their efforts,” said Weiderud.

Moreover, she noted that the Cypriot society should see that the RTCYPP, held under the auspices of the Swedish Embassy to Cyprus, is not something to fear, it is not about promoting religion, it is about advancing religious freedom.

She said that she is very grateful and tremendously honoured for receiving the International Religious Freedom Award, adding that this award is not however about her, Sweden or the US but about the religious leaders themselves.  They “have made concrete proposals. Allow them to administer their places of worship. Together we have found ways and realistic formulas based on the principles of religious freedom,” she added.

People should pay attention and be proud that their religious leaders are talking together, acknowledging each other. The political authorities and civil society should support this process so that they can be able to deliver, she noted.

“They have done things, we need to note them, we need to give oxygen to their positive joint efforts, all of us and not just those  of faith but also those with no faith, while also the religious leaders and the faith committees  have to understand and respect those who don’t want to believe,” she added.

Referring to the establishment of the Religious Track ten years ago, she noted that until then issues of religious freedom became obstacles, instead of promoting a peace agreement. There was a lack of religious literacy and real understanding of religious freedom, she added.

The religious leaders of Cyprus were never brought together at the table to work together. They’d been at receptions or at events, they’d seen each other but that is not dialogue nor cooperation, Weiderud noted.

She went on to say that she was really amazed by their response to the RTCYPP, and even though she has cooperated for decades with religious leaders, as she has worked at the World Council of Churches, she has not seen again before such a quick readiness and positive attitude from religious leaders .

“These religious leaders were ready. I was impressed with the way Archbishop Chrysostomos II reacted and guided the initiative, the way he met with the Mufti, the way they reacted to each other and they invited the others to join. It was like the most natural thing to do. Even though it was a quiet diplomacy, it flourished because of their commitment, giving me hope in very hopeless situations,” she added.

To a question about the involvement of Cypriot citizens in peacebuilding, she noted that “there are very exciting new initiatives coming up that are outside party politics, ethnicity and religion. The question is how to involve the majority of people in this, irrelevant of their different political affiliations,” she added.

Asked about her vision and hope for Cyprus, Weiderud said that “we have to be able to see that being divided is not the way forward. We are a small beautiful island in a troubled region. We can be an oasis of hope if we can come together and sort out our differences,” she added.

“We have to respect each other as equal citizens, accept and even love our differences and see the needs and rights of the other, including the religious ones. What one mother feels for her child another mother feels, what one child needs another child needs and one is not more important than the other. We have seen little pockets of hope and those can and should be an inspiration for the rest of the island. If we can agree on this, if we can listen to each other, stand up for each other then we would be able to move forward together, then there will be a healing process which would help us rebuild a future together, she added.

On her part, US Ambassador to Cyprus, Judith Garber told CNA that when the US Secretary of State Pompeo read about the work that Weiderud was doing and what was happening with the Religious Track, he decided to give one of the awards to her as the only awardee in Europe.

The Ambassador noted that through their cooperation, the religious leaders of Cyprus have been able to increase access to religious sites for religious communities on both sides of the buffer zone.

Weiderud has been involved in this since the very beginning and, in many ways, she is the heart and soul behind the Religious Track, Garber noted, adding that the US is thrilled to have partners that would help advance the cause of religious freedom around the world and in Cyprus.

Cyprus has been divided since 1974, when Turkish troops invaded and occupied 37% of its territory. Repeated rounds of UN-led peace talks have so far failed to yield results. The latest round of negotiations, in the summer of 2017, at the Swiss resort of Crans-Montana, ended inconclusively.

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