NICOSIA, Cyprus — A historic monastery where an apostle of Jesus Christ is said to have performed miracles is close to caving in and needs immediate repairs, the leader of Cyprus' Orthodox Christian Church said Monday.
Archbishop Chrysostomos II urged Greek Cypriot pilgrims not to travel to the Apostolos Andreas — or Saint Andrew — monastery in the island's northern breakaway Turkish Cypriot northern sector for fear it could collapse.
He said if Turkish Cypriot authorities didn't act fast, he would dispatch restoration crews to prop up the monastery's crumbling central archway, possibly stoking tensions on the divided island.
Chrysostomos account was immediately disputed by Turkish Cypriot officials, who say authorities are keen to protect the island's cultural heritage and a restoration program is already under way
"(The monastery) is vital for us, we see this as part of the common cultural heritage of Cyprus," official Kudret Ozersay said, adding that protecting such monuments is key for Turkish Cypriots to generate tourism revenue.
Chrysostomos, an outspoken critic of Turkey who some criticize for what they say are his unabashed right-wing views and meddling in politics, said Turkish Cypriots were deliberately delaying restoration efforts in a bid to "erase" any trace of Christianity or Greekness in the north.
"I believe the time has come for Apostolos Andreas to be restored. There will be no forum where we won't denounce these actions by Turks who are obstructing the restoration," the archbishop said.
The Mediterranean island was split into an internationally recognized Greek-speaking south and a breakaway Turkish-speaking north in 1974 when Turkey invaded after a coup by supporters of union with Greece. Turkish Cypriots declared an independent state in 1983, but only Turkey recognizes it and keeps 35,000 troops there. Long-running reunification talks are foundering.
Ozersay — a group of Greek and Turkish Cypriot experts mandated to protect religious and other important monuments — is spearheading the restoration program, but must first secure funds.
Several previous restoration attempts — some of which included United States involvement — became mired in the island's Byzantine politics.
Located on a rocky outcrop on the island's northeastern tip, the monastery has been venerated by pilgrims for generations. It's origins date back to the 1st century A.D. when according to church tradition Saint Andrew was left stranded there for three days after the ship he was traveling on sought safe harbor following a violent storm.
While there, the Saint is said to have created a fresh water spring to quench the sailors' thirst and healed the blind child of the captain, who converted to Christianity and built a church at the spot.