On Cyprus, Values Clash With Desire to Join EU

Futuristic-looking office buildings with mirror-glass windows loom over Makarios Avenue, the main shopping street in Nicosia, the capital of Cyprus.

The street is clogged with Mercedes sedans and fashionable four-wheel-drive vehicles, and lined with expensive boutiques selling the latest European fashions. Trendy cafes are packed with smart young executives chatting over mobile phones.

In the coastal towns, meanwhile, there are swinging nightclubs and topless beaches.

The look is European. And as Cyprus prepares to join the European Union (EU), this Mediterranean holiday island appears to be an easy fit. Compatibility, however, might not be so easy. Perhaps because of its affluent and modern appearance, visitors sometimes forget that Greek Cyprus is at heart still a conservative society.

In villages, families are tightly knit, the dowry system lingers on, and unmarried mothers are unheard of. But society is now under pressure to adopt what some see as unpalatable changes.

An EU ultimatum

None has proved more controversial than calls for Cyprus to scrap a law that criminalizes homosexuality. Earlier this month, the Council of Europe gave Cyprus just a few more weeks to legalize sex between consenting male adults in private. The law does not address lesbianism.

The government, keen to show that the island will be a progressive and worthwhile member of the EU, has been pressing the parliament for more than two years to amend the law.

Legislators worry about upsetting the electorate and the powerful and wealthy Greek Orthodox Church of Cyprus, which sees itself as the guardian of the nation's moral fiber and is campaigning vociferously against any change.

The church was a cornerstone of the Greek Cypriots' Hellenistic identity through 300 years of Ottoman Turk rule. Attendance at mass is still very high, although the elderly are more regular churchgoers than youths.

"Only enemies of our nation would endorse the decriminalization of homosexual acts," Archbishop Chrysostomos, the spiritual leader of the island's 600,000 Greek Cypriots, told state television. "Cyprus will be full of homosexuals if homosexuality is encouraged. It is a violation both of the laws of the Creator and the laws of nature."

Priests, monks, and other antigay protesters, who have portrayed homosexuals as predatory and depraved, have picketed the parliament building in Nicosia during past debates on the issue. Some carried placards reading "No to Sodom and Gomorrah in Cyprus" and "Homosexuality Equals Misery, Guilt, and AIDS." Some deputies have also argued that it will weaken the backbone of the Greek Cypriot National Guard, and so diminish its ability to resist the Turkish Army, which occupies the northern portion of the divided island.

Gay-rights activists - and there are only a handful in Cyprus - counter that the antigay lobby needs enlightening. "We are ordinary people who were not made homosexuals. We were born homosexuals. They think we are monsters from outer space," says Alecos Modinos, a leading gay-rights campaigner.

Five years ago, Mr. Modinos took Cyprus to the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg, France, and won. Cyprus has frequently lodged complaints of human rights abuses by Turkey at the same court, and the government worries the court will not take such cases seriously if parliament continues to drag its heels on the gay issue.

A law often ignored

The island's attorney general, Alecos Markides, has told deputies that not much will change anyway because the existing law against homosexuals, under which gay men can be imprisoned for up to seven years for sodomy, has not been enforced for more than a decade. It was drawn up in 1885, shortly after Britain took over control of Cyprus from Ottoman Turkey.

Mr. Markides also points out that Greece decriminalized homosexuality in 1951 and "the nation was not destroyed."

The issue has exposed a yawning generation gap. A recent poll revealed that 92 percent of Cypriots over the age of 60 oppose decriminalizing homosexuality, while 75 percent of 18- to 24-year-olds hold the opposite view. Many commentators in the local press have urged parliament to resist the church, assuring them that public opinion is generally tolerant of homosexuality. Gay-bashing, they point out, is unheard-of in Cyprus, where some nightclubs in the cities even feature gay nights.

"How can a supposedly modern, educated country like Cyprus continue to relegate some of its citizens to the fringes of society, denying them the basic right to an identity?" asked The Cyprus Mail newspaper in a recent article.

Parliament is more likely to be swayed by pressure from the state than the church, commentators say. Greek Cypriots are overwhelmingly in favor of joining the EU, which they say will safeguard them against further Turkish expansionism.

Their economy should present little problem. Of the six countries that began accession negotiations with the EU last month, Greek Cyprus is by far the most prosperous. Thanks to its service economy, Cyprus's per capita GDP is at least four times greater than any of the five Eastern European countries that are also candidates for EU membership.

Politically, however, the Greek Cypriots face a greater hurdle than do other EU hopefuls. With mainland Turkey opposed to their application and the Turkish Cypriots refusing to join the negotiating team, Cyprus knows the EU will be reluctant to bring in a country split by a Berlin-style wall. Because of that, commentators say, Cyprus may be unwilling to lose goodwill points by keeping on its books a section of the penal code that is not being enforced.

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