- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 10, 2012

Cyprus‘ foreign minister says her island nation can serve as a “bridge” between the European Union and the Middle East, where the fate of Christian communities in the post-Arab Spring nations should be a concern in the West.

“The fate of the Christian communities in these countries is extremely important,” Erato Kozakou-Marcoullis said in an interview with The Washington Times.

“For us, the principle of protecting and not excluding these communities from the political transformations that are taking place is a vital interest.”

Christians are in the minority throughout the Middle East, where countries that have ousted longtime autocratic regimes are still roiled by unrest and where Islamist parties have come to power.

“We are naturally a bridge between the European Union and the Middle East, and we can play an important role in the developments in the Middle East,” Ms. Kozakou-Marcoullis said of her countrymen.

Cyprus will assume the rotating presidency of the EU on July 1, the same day the 27-member bloc’s oil embargo on Iran is set to take effect. The ban aims to pressure Iran over its nuclear program, which Tehran claims is for peaceful purposes but which the West fears is geared for developing an atomic bomb.

Iranian negotiators in talks with representatives of six world powers reportedly have asked the EU to delay the embargo. But Ms. Kozakou-Marcoullis said sanctions against Iran should not be relaxed “unless there is a big change” in Tehran’s behavior.

The foreign minister acknowledged that the oil embargo, like all sanctions, would have a negative effect on the economies of the EU, still is struggling to emerge from a debt crisis.

“They have consequences, and it’s there where you balance the political with the economic consequences,” she said. “And the European Union has taken a position which is very clear, that the political benefits of having the sanctions are more important than the political consequences.”

Ms. Kozakou-Marcoullis was in Washington last week to address the American Jewish Committee’s annual gathering, and her speech focused on the country’s blossoming friendship with Israel. In February, Benjamin Netanyahu became the first Israeli premier to visit Cyprus.

The warming in Israeli relations comes as Turkey, which has long claimed a northern region of Cyprus, has severed its alliance with the Jewish state over its bloody 2010 raid on a Gaza-bound Turkish-flagged ship.

Ms. Kozakou-Marcoullis said the two are unconnected, and attributed the bonhomie to the discovery of natural gas in the eastern Mediterranean, which has produced opportunities for economic cooperation.

Cyprus is finalizing deals with Israel, Egypt and Lebanon to delineate their respective exclusive economic zones. Turkey, which disputes Cypriot drilling rights, has been conducting naval exercises in the area.

Ms. Kozakou-Marcoullis stressed that Turkish warships had not “harassed” or “come near” the rig where Nobel Energy, an American company, is drilling.

“The messages that came from Washington were very strong, and they were at the highest level,” she said. “We have been given assurances regarding the rights of the Republic of Cyprus to conduct the exploratory drilling and exploitation of its natural resources within our exclusive economic zone.”

Ms. Kozakou-Marcoullis reiterate that in a reunified Cyprus, natural gas revenues would be apportioned at the federal level between the country’s Greek and Turkish halves.

While reunification efforts have stalled, the foreign minister said the gas reserves could prompt the two sides to reach a solution by the time gas production begins between 2015 and 2017.

“I am optimistic that by that time we will reach a solution,” Ms. Kozakou-Marcoullis said.

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