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Cypriot Maronites: Ancient community facing extinction

Cypriot Maronites: Ancient community facing extinction
From Al Jazeera - February 12, 2018

Kormakitis, Cyprus - The fitful chirps of birds are the only sounds to break the profound silence, as Iosif Skordis, a robust 89-year-old with a taste for fuzzy wool caps, unhurriedly takes his usual seat on the narrow balcony outside this decades-old cafe.

Turning slightly to his right, he points through an open green door to the handful of men - all in their 60s, at least - huddled around a card game beneath yellowed posters of Catholic popes and Lebanese leaders.

"These ones over there, they are the youngest of those of us still living here," Skordis says between sips of coffee, as afternoon breaks in Kormakitis.

This tiny hilltop village in the horn of northwestern Cyprus is home to some 100 elderly Maronites, followers of one of the Catholic Church's oldest branches.

To be sure, time passes slowly here. But in fact, time is fast running out.

"We are headed towards extinction," says Antonis Haji Roussos, 78, sitting just a few metres away, in the shade of well-kept oleander trees.

"There is no future for our community," he adds, his voice calm yet imbued with a single, brittle note of emotion.

A winding maze of sloping pathways and brick-and-stone houses, Kormakitis is pinned to the east and west by green rolling plains and idyllic beaches.

Although fluent in Greek, its grey-haired inhabitants share news, jokes and thoughts in their indigenous tongue: a unique variety of Arabic heavily influenced by Aramaic, the language of Jesus.

They are descendants of Christians who fled to Cyprus from modern-day Syria and Lebanon in four successive waves from the late 7th Century onwards.

Less than 50 years ago, Kormakitis was home to about 2,000 people. It was the beating heart of the island's small but vibrant Maronite community.

But then in 1974, a brief Greece-backed coup prompted a military intervention by Turkish forces, which effectively divided the island between a Turkish Cypriot north and a Greek Cypriot south.

The Maronites, who resided in four neighbouring northern villages, suddenly found themselves in the middle of an ethnic conflict that would have a devastating effect on their community.

Their ancestral villages, which had for centuries shielded their culture and customs, were instantly seized by the Turkish army. Overnight, about 80 percent of Cyprus' Maronites were uprooted, seeking shelter in the Greek-speaking south.

But in Kormakitis, the largest of the villages, hundreds opted to stay behind.

They were unharmed by the fighting, but life became increasingly difficult. With work opportunities shrinking and the village's only school shut, many - especially the youth - felt they had no choice but to leave Kormakitis for the more affluent south.

Yet for some, abandoning Kormakitis was never an option.

"Where could I have gone?" Skordis asks, without waiting for an answer. "This is where my father was born and died; my mother and siblings, too. I have been a farmer all my life and everything I have done, I have done it here."

In the end, some 120 Maronites remained "enclaved" in Kormakitis, living north of a United Nations-controlled no-man's land dividing the Mediterranean island.

For decades, before the easing of border restrictions in 2003, the villagers would need to secure special permission to see their displaced loved ones in person. Contact was brief and sporadic.

"Life was lonely," recalls 71-year-old Annetta Maurohanna, who has been working at the cafe by the imposing St. George cathedral in the heart of Kormakitis for the past 30 years.

"But I did not want to leave," she adds. "Everyone craves to be at home."

Each week, a UN truck would visit the largely cut off villages to deliver foodstuff, medicine and other vital supplies.

"You'd have to have been here to be able to understand the hardship that we went through," says Skordis, a father of six, pausing to hold back tears.

"Three of my daughters sent me messages before their weddings saying they didnt have any money to get married - and I could not send them any," he continues. "We suffered a lot, and thats why we now avoid remembering those times so we do not get upset."

Today, the island's Maronites number an estimated 6,000 people.

They are scattered across southern towns and villages, bar the band of elderly farmers, herdsmen and pensioners residing in Kormakitis and a handful of families living in Karpasha, further southeast.

Two other nearby Maronite villages - Asomatos and Ayia Marina (a previously mixed Maronite and Turkish Cypriot village) - are empty of their residents and now used by the Turkish army as military bases.

About half of the Maronite population is believed to trace its roots back to Kormakitis, and the vast majority of them have been allowed to repair their previously deserted houses. Its residents have ownership rights and can also sell or rent their land, as well as inherit it, but subject to specific conditions.

The village comes alive again on weekends and holidays, its square filled with children and its cafes and tavernas overflowing with patrons.

The school remains shut, but in the summer children here attend short language camps to learn Cypriot Maronite Arabic (CMA), referred to locally as Sanna.

Passed down from generation to generation through every day conversation, the centuries-old CMA is a variant of Arabic that's rooted in Aramaic but has taken words from Greek, Turkish and Latin.

It is classified as a "seriously endangered" language by the Council of Europe, while 10 years ago experts created a written alphabet with the aim of codifying and preserving it.

Mysteriously, the ancient dialect is only spoken by Kormakitis natives and not by any others Maronites from the community's other remaining villages. Until 1974, children in Kormakitis would only begin learning Greek in the first grade.

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