HC Deb 29 March 1956 vol 550 cc2420-8

3.31 p.m.

Mr. William Teeling (Brighton, Pavilion)

I can speak not only for myself but for the Maronite community in Cyprus in saying how grateful we are to Mr. Speaker for having made it possible to have this debate this afternoon. It is worth while that the outside world should realise how small communities and groups of people throughout the Empire and especially the Colonies can, when they want, get the ear of the House on problems which are entirely their own.

It is particularly nice to think that sometimes Members of Parliament, when they cease to be Members of Parliament and leave the House, can still take an interest in the Colonies and other areas in which they were previously interested. That has enabled us to talk about this subject today. I am referring to a former Member whom many hon. Members will remember, Captain Alan Graham, who was here for many years and who later went to live in Cyprus. It was he who put me in touch with the Maronite community when I was in Cyprus about a year age and when the Maronites told me about their particular problems.

I will not go into the history of the Maronites, because I am not a theologiar and I do not know all the details of their past. I believe that some people say that their history goes back to the fifth century when there was a priest called Maro and some say their history goes back only to the eighth century. Be that as it may the Maronites are a very old religious community in the Middle East and, of course, for many generations they were under the Turks of the Ottoman Empire

At about the time of the Crusades they got into touch with the Crusaders coming from Europe and they linked themselves with the Latin rites of the Roman Church Today they are in communion with the Roman Catholic Church, although a separate religious community on then own. They number about 500,000, mainly in the Lebanon, with communities nothing like so large in Egypt and Syria, and with about 5,000 in Cyprus. That is not a very large community. It is about 1 pet cent. of the whole population of Cyprus but it is a group which is loyal to this country, and it is a very religious group.

However, because of its small numbers and the fact that its members are scattered in many villages throughout Cyprus, the group is very poor. It has only one church, I believe in Nicosia. I have visited the church and met the Maronites there. They find that they are far too large a community for that church. Almost next door is an old palace—or the remains of an old palace—and some people say that part of it was a former chapel called La Madonna Del Castello. That is the chapel or building that the Maronites are asking to have handed over to them.

It is at the moment being used by the archaeological department of the Government of Cyprus. It is being used, I believe, as a store for things that should one day go into the museum. I have written on more than one occasion to the Secretary of State for the Colonies about this, and I have had replies on the matter in the House.

Last July, my right hon. Friend answered that he himself had been told about this problem and had discussed it with the Governor. I can only say that when I was there in April, the then Governor knew nothing about it at all. It had not even reached the high authority of the Executive Council; but he promised to look into it. The Colonial Secretary was very busy in July and August, and he had only time to say that he would look into it and would ask the Governor to do so again. The information which I have is that the Governor had looked into this matter—that was in December—and that he could not find a place suitable for the museum. It was true that this building was being used as a storage house and that something like £5,000 had been spent on it since, presumably, 1939, when it was taken over, and they say now that they cannot move out of it at the present moment.

When I was there, the head of the museum was very frank with me and said that by then, last April, not more than £2,000 had been spent on altering the building and they felt that as they got so little money from the Government to run these museums they dare not lose £2,000. They felt that this must go on, as it was going to be used for exhibits. Once the storage was more or less suit- ably cleared away people would be allowed to visit it and on the profits from that they hoped to raise the £2,000 and if they did so they would be prepared to vacate it. They pointed out that the chance of raising this money was slight at the moment and would probably take five or six years. That was the attitude of the museum.

I have again asked questions on this subject and each time I have been told that the Government are indeed in sympathy with the Maronites but there is such a shortage of building at the present time in Cyprus that it is almost impossible to find anywhere where the museum could go and they were busy looking for a suitable place.

I have read in the papers in the last two days reports on the financial problems of Cyprus at the present moment. The Governor has told us of the greatly increased expenditure naturally necessitated by the troubles of that country. He has also told us of the millions of pounds now being spent to develop Cyprus. I feel that out of all these millions it might be possible to write off £5,000 from the museum, or perhaps only £2,000, and satisfy a really loyal community in that island.

I have had letters since I raised this question from people who have nothing whatever to do with the Maronites but who happen to live in Cyprus, mostly British subjects, and they have said that it is quite amazing to see the loyalty of the Maronite villagers scattered throughout the island. Such is their loyalty that very often they get into trouble with their Greek Orthodox neighbours, and therefore this is a very small thing for which we are asking, perhaps as a reward.

I have an awful feeling that it is a question of red tape and that if only someone of the calibre of the Secretary of State for the Colonies or the Minister of State would say "This has got to be done", these very few thousand pounds would be written off and a building found. It cannot be all that difficult to find some place in which to store a few museum pieces. It is very interesting and wholly worth while to know that Cyprus is developing her archaeological plans, and it is useful to have these things to show tourists when they go there after peace returns.

But, in the meantime, surely a live religion is more worth while. It is surely worth while to support a body of people who are very religious-minded and not in the least politically minded and who are extremely loyal to our present Government. I have had a letter from the Maronite Archbishop of Cyprus now living in the Lebanon, and I am sure that the House will forgive me if I am rather slow in translating it because it is in French. I will translate a sentence from it. It says: We would be equally grateful to you, Monsieur le Deputé, if you would express to the Government of Her Majesty the sentiments of our personal attachment and the tremendous loyalty of all our Maronite subjects in Cyprus. In addition, in these days when we badly need friends in the Middle East it would be a good thing for the 500,000 people in the Lebanon to know that their friends in Cyprus are being helped, supported and recognised. It is worth spending this small sum, which cannot be much more than £5,000. Surely we can ask the Government to do something about it today.

3.40 p.m.

Mr. Anthony Kershaw (Stroud)

I start by congratulating my hon. Friend the Member for Brighton, Pavilion (Mr. Teeling) upon his expert translation of a foreign letter into HANSARD language straight away. I shall delay the House for only a few minutes.

I want to reinforce my hon. Friend's plea for our consideration of this small community in Cyprus. Like my hon. Friend, I am not a theologian and perhaps, as a Protestant, I might have even less of an idea about theological niceties and Maronite rites than himself. I shall not develop that part of the discussion, but I submit that the House ought to give consideration to the position of any minority.

When the British Crown was first connected with Cyprus this community of Maronites consisted of 80,000 people. Their numbers are now down to about 5,000. One of our most proud claims in our colonial and Empire policy is that our rôle has been to serve and protect the interests of minorities. Certainly, in Cyprus there are very important minorities, whose position is responsible for the intense difficulty which exists there today. We cannot afford—least of all in Cyprus, perhaps—to be negligent of the interests of minorities.

The circumstances which, in recent years, have attended our departure from some of the places which we had ruled for generations have proved that unless great care is taken of those minorities they will suffer. The circumstances which attended our departure from Burma and India were terrible for the minorities which existed there. This question of minorities is extremely important in our colonial policy, and for that reason, if for no other, I hope that the position of this Maronite religious sect will be borne in mind.

It is not a great deal to ask that they should have a proper church in which to worship. In relation to the crisis which exists in Cyprus, the amount of money involved is not very large. As my hon. Friend mentioned, they are an extremely loyal community, although, even if they were not, I consider that we should stand up for their rights as a minority. I hope that the Minister will be able to say that he will look further into this matter and see whether it is not possible to allow this small amount to be spent in renovating their chapel. Spending that small amount in that way might be far more useful than spending the same amount of money upon suppression in Cyprus, which is unfortunately necessary at the moment. It might pay a real dividend in the future. I hope that something can be done in this matter.

3.44 p.m.

The Minister of State for Colonial Affairs (Mr. John Hare)

Perhaps I may reply, with the leave of the House. I am extremely grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Brighton, Pavilion (Mr. Teeling) for giving us this opportunity to discuss the affairs of the Maronite community in Cyprus. At a time when a number of other events of a far more turbulent character are taking place in Cyprus, and are occupying the headlines, it is only right and proper that we should spare time to discuss the well-being of this small community whose loyalty to the British connection has never been called in question. I could not agree more with what both my hon. Friends have said about the fidelity and loyalty of this community to us here at home.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Brighton, Pavilion said, the Maronites are a Christian sect who have been in communion with the Roman Catholic Church since early in the eighteenth Century. My information is that they have been established in Cyprus for at least thirteen hundred years, so I beat my hon. Friend the Member for Brighton, Pavilion, who claimed only five hundred. They were at one time considerably more numerous than they are now, some of the community having possibly been absorbed into other faiths in Cyprus.

I am not sure that either of my hon. Friends was quite certain that the figure he gave of the numbers of this community was accurate. My hon. Friends said five thousand, but the census of 1946 put the figure of the Maronites at two thousand five hundred, and showed that most of them occupied four villages, while some were dispersed in the towns, especially in Nicosia.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Pavilion has informed the House, not only in this debate but in a number of Questions in recent months, the Cyprus Maronites are badly in need of the church. Nobody disputes this. Their own church in Nicosia is dilapidated and small. The Vicar-General of the Maronites has suggested that a building called the Topkhane, that is to say, a former arsenal, might be handed over to the Maronites for use as a church. He has, in fact, claimed that the building is the old Church of the Madonna del Castello.

The Vicar-General's claim is hotly disputed by the Director of Antiquities in Cyprus. He has been there for twenty years and has a very thorough knowledge of this building and other ancient buildings. He does not agree with the Vicar-General, and considers that the building is of secular origin and that it once formed part of the palace of the Lusignan Kings. I am not trying to involve myself in a dispute between two people who, however sincere, hold very different points of view on this matter.

There can be no doubt that the Topkhane has belonged to the Cyprus Government from time immemorial. Until 1939, when the Antiquities Department took it over, it was used as a municipal store. Since then, the Government have spent £5,400 on preserving its structure and on adapting it to house the mediaeval section of the Cyprus Museum and on acquiring adjoining property to improve the amenities. I do not think that my hon. Friend was quite clear that the display of early Christian and mediaeval antiquities which it is designed to house will be open to the public this year. The building is not going to be used as a store but as a museum this year.

The Government of Cyprus have given very serious consideration to the Maronites' request that the building should be made available to them. Since the main Cyprus museum is overcrowded, an alternative home would have to be found for the museum's medieval collection, and try as hard as they could they have been unable to find a suitable alternative building. However, I can make this pledge—and the Maronite community has been told—that if a suitable building can be found the Director of Antiquities will offer it the first option on the lease of the Topkhana.

In addition, the Government have also arranged for a search to be made on behalf of the Maronites for another building which might serve them as a church. This would have to be in the vicinity of their present church, and unfortunately it has not proved possible to find a suitable building yet that satisfies these conditions. In the circumstances—I do not know whether my hon. Friend the Member for Brighton, Pavilion knows this—the Governor suggested to the Vicar-General of the Maronite community that his object should, therefore, be to build a new church on the site of the present one. At present, however, the strain on building resources in Cyprus is so great that it will not be possible to start a building of this kind for the time being.

When it does become possible to make building resources available for a church, the question of finance will obviously arise. The Vicar-General has proposed to the Government that they should make a free grant of £23,000 to the community for the construction of the Church. I regret to say that a free grant of this order would be out of the question, but at the same time the Cyprus Government are anxious to give the community whatever help they can, and will certainly afford reasonable assistance. For instance, it would help with the provision of loan facilities in order to aid the Maronites to construct this new church.

I am afraid that I must inform both of my hon. Friends that, in the present circumstances in Cyprus, I feel that it is not possible for the Government to go further than I have been able to indicate. I have consulted my right hon. Friend on this and he has told me to say that he can see no immediate prospect of help being forthcoming to this community over the question of its church. We certainly recognise this community as a valuable section of the inhabitants of Cyprus and we shall do whatever we can to help it, both specifically as a community and by raising the general standard of living of all the population of Cyprus.

I should like to conclude this debate by briefly drawing the attention of the House to the way in which the Cyprus development plan, which was outlined by the Governor in his Budget speech earlier this week, will, once it gets under way, be of help to the Maronites. For example, those Maronites living in the villages should benefit from the funds earmarked under the plan for expenditure in the next twelve months on rural development projects. These funds amount to about £1½ million, and if they show good results for this year it is the Government's intention to give further financial assistance on a substantial scale to similar projects in subsequent years.

Similarly, programmes of irrigation and village water supplies are to be accelerated, there is to be research into water resources, and the general tackling of agricultural problems is to be stepped up. I think that the development plan is also bound to help the Maronites who live in the towns, because they will benefit from the schemes of port development, expansion of electrical services and the inland telecommunication services. It is fair to say that all the Maronites, townsmen and countrymen alike, will benefit from the social insurance scheme which has just been published and which will come into operation this autumn.

To sum up, I can assure the House and my two hon. Friends that Her Majesty's Government and the Government of Cyprus are deeply conscious of the needs of this very loyal community and will do the best within their power to help it. A large part of this help, however, cannot in the circumstances be directed to the Maronites alone. It must be directed to raising their standard of living as part of the community as a whole. Therefore, much as I would like to do so and much as I appreciate the eloquence of both my hon. Friends, I very much regret that I am not able to help in the way which they have suggested.

Mr. Teeling

Would there be a possibility of letting the Maronites have a piece of land? If they cannot have a building, could they be provided with some land on the outskirts of, say, Nicosia?

Mr. Hare

My hon. Friend perhaps did not appreciate that the Government of Cyprus have already been asked by the Vicar-General of the Maronite community for a grant of £23,000 towards the construction of a church. I will certainly see that what he said about the gift of land is brought to the attention of the Governor of Cyprus, but I am afraid that would not really satisfy the Maronite community in the way that I know my hon. Friend wishes to help them.