Last edited: December 08, 2004

Cyprus Divided Over Gay Rights

The Guardian, 16 October 2001
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The split between Greek and Turkish Cypriots may be an obstacle to EU membership but so is that between the Orthodox church and the gay community, writes Helena Smith.

As Cyprus canters towards EU accession an obstacle has arisen that highlight the sort of social confrontation the profoundly conservative island looks set to confront in its otherwise problem-free odyssey towards Euroland.

Last week, an unassuming Dutch Euro MP drew attention to the unexpected pitfall by announcing her intention to vote against the war-torn island’s EU accession unless it improves its appalling gay rights record.

Lousewies van der Laan said that, while Cyprus has pulled off the spectacular feat of fulfilling all of Brussels’ gruelling political and economic criteria, it continued to discriminate, flagrantly, against homosexuals.

"I note with regret that not all applicant countries are ready for full equality of homosexuals," Van der Laan, vice-president of the European parliament’s budgetary control committee, wrote in a letter to Cyprus’ EU negotiating team. "But I do expect basic anti-discrimination laws to apply. Gay rights are human rights and as such are non-negotiable."

This battle shows every sign of intensifying in the run-up to the EU’s anticipated embrace of the wealthy Mediterranean outpost in January 2004.

Girding himself for the fight, Archbishop Chrysostomos, the veteran primate of Cyprus’ all-powerful Orthodox church, recently made an impassioned appeal to the popular holiday resort’s womenfolk to "revolt against homosexuals".

"They are depraved sinners," snapped the spiritual leader who has also pledged to "personally excommunicate the perverts" if they refuse to repent their "unnatural acts ... You must stop them."

The octogenarian primate’s outburst was quickly branded as nothing short of "unchristian" by critics who point to the various "colourful acts" that bearded clerics purportedly indulge in.

Only weeks ago, the church had to swallow the public humiliation of having a senior archimandrite defrocked for his role in a sex scandal. Across the Orthodox world accusations of homosexuality are also rife amongst men of the cloth.

But the European parliament, as Ms van der Laan has now revealed, is ill-prepared to be patient on the matter of securing rights for all minorities, including gays and lesbians.

In the next 18 months, Euro MPs are expected to lobby hard for Nicosia, the world’s last divided capital, to further liberalise legislation for homosexuals.

They will press for the age of lawful sexual activity amongst consenting males to be lowered from 18 to 16 years, in line with heterosexuals; for gay marriage and partnership rights to be endorsed; and for the eradication of all inequality against gays in Cyprus’ overwhelmingly traditional workplace.

"Homosexuals, here, are so terrified of "coming out" that they are forced to lead unhealthy double lives, usually with lots of different partners," sighs Alecos Modinos, a gay activist who forced Nicosia to decriminalize homosexuality in 1998 after resorting to the European court of human rights.

"The discrepancy in penalization is also very strong: if you’re a gay man caught having underage sex you’ll get five years in prison. If you’re straight, three months. One has to ask what chance do gay and lesbians have in a country like this?"

As one of the last places in the world to openly discourage gay nightlife, most homosexuals invariably flee the island, which, ironically, has come to be appreciated as the free-for-all "new Ibiza" amongst straight ravers on the international party scene.

But the church, the island’s richest organisation with factories, hotels and wineries to its name, has vowed to "stand firm".

To do otherwise, says the archbishop, unveiling his logic, would be to accept that one day the EU could "tell us all to be homosexuals" in order to join the 15-nation bloc.

Back in 1997, in the midst of the church’s battle to prevent same-sex acts being legalised, Chrysostomos—whose name means "golden tongue"—told me: "Homosexuality is against God’s law and therefore illegal. If it is legalised it will create a lot of problems and, like smoking, will become a dangerous habit. It will encourage perversion, it will taint children ... in order to save others, the church will be obliged to excommunicate those who refuse to repent. Otherwise, we will open the floodgates of sin."

A church spokesman said the most reverend’s views "had not changed an iota."

Sunny Cyprus was one of the world’s last countries to outlaw homosexuality with legislation that was adopted in 1889 when the island colony was still a pink dot on the map of the British empire. It only grudgingly voted to scrap the Victorian law under threat of censure from the Council of Europe.

On the continent, Romania remains the last country to still legally discriminate against gays.

In the 1990s progressive Cypriots looked on aghast at medieval scenes of black-clad priests and nuns converging on parliament to chant "this is the island of saints not homosexuals". This time around, clerics are promising "even bigger" demonstrations.

"By giving homosexuals these sort of rights, we’ll automatically diminish the ability of the Greek Cypriot National Guard to defend our community," one priest claimed. Turkey invaded and seized the northern third of the island in 1974 after a brief Athens-inspired coup aimed at uniting the island and its Turkish minority with Greece.

"People, here, believe that all their problems will be solved with the EU," said one western diplomat.

"In fact, that’s when they’ll really begin. The gay issue is a classic example of the kind of problem all of the accession countries will face in exacting the sort of social reform that will harmonise them with the rest of Europe."

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