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Cyprus priest's war on sex traffickers

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  • Bill Samsonoff
    http://www.kuwaittimes.net/read_news.php?newsid=MTIyNTI3NDc5MQ== Cyprus priest s war on sex traffickers Published Date: December 03, 2007 By Sophie Deviller
    Message 1 of 1 , Dec 2, 2007
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      http://www.kuwaittimes.net/read_news.php?newsid=MTIyNTI3NDc5MQ==

      Cyprus priest's war on sex traffickers

      Published Date: December 03, 2007
      By Sophie Deviller


      Standing outside his humble church in Limassol, a popular tourist
      town on the south coast of Cyprus, Father Savvas Michaelides, with
      his bushy graying beard and dark robes, could be mistaken for a
      Russian priest. Few would suspect that he has a 10,000-Cypriot-pound
      (17,000-euro, 25,000-dollar) bounty on his head after waging a
      one-man war on the seedy world of sex trafficking which is blighting
      this Mediterranean island. He has taken up the fight against sexual
      exploitation on behalf of what he says are the thousands of women
      forced to work in the country's illegal sex industry. Armed with a
      fearless frankness and booming voice, he thundered through an
      explanation of the plight of the young girls from eastern Europe and
      Africa, forced to work as prostitutes by unscrupulous "cabaret"
      owners. "The pimps tell them they are coming here to work as dancers
      or in bars. In truth, they must become prostitutes, and are locked
      away, sometimes beaten and raped," he said. Most have their passports
      taken from them, allegedly "for safe keeping" but in reality it is to
      keep them prisoners.

      All this is possible because they are given 'artistes' visas to enter
      the country by the Cypriot authorities," he said angrily, referring
      to special permits for working in the entertainment industry. Father
      Savvas was born in Limassol 60 years ago, leaving for Athens at 19 to
      study theology. Fascinated by the Orthodox church, the dominant
      Christian denomination in the region, he sees the church in Russia as
      the "Mother of Churches", and went to France to learn Russian. He
      returned to Cyprus to teach theology and only then did he decide to
      devote his life to the priesthood. "I gave myself time to reflect. I
      wanted to be sure of my calling," he explained. Today, he works in
      the island's only Russian Orthodox church, a tiny building with
      crumbling brickwork, in Limassol.

      In the intimate surroundings of his confessional, he learned shocking
      details of the reality of Cyprus's sex industry. "The women have told
      me of the horrible things to which they are subjected."I have tried
      to persuade them to leave the cabaret clubs but I cannot offer them a
      practical solution," he said. In 2001, a young Russian cabaret worker
      unwillingly drawn into prostitution plunged five stories to her death
      in the town. Reports that she had been trying to escape from a locked
      room drove Father Savvas into action. "It is not enough to speak the
      word of God, you must also take action," he said. Three years later
      he was able to open a shelter for victims of sex trafficking.

      The refuge is the only one of its type in Cyprus and has helped
      around 300 victims. "We help them leave prostitution, return home to
      their own countries or find legal help if they want to make a formal
      complaint, which is rare because these women are terrorized," he
      added. With his battered little white car, Father Savvas does not
      hesitate to go out onto the streets looking for vulnerable young
      women in the cabarets and confront their employers face-to-face.
      Tatiana is a Ukrainian and former sex worker rescued by the priest.
      "He is the only one who tries to help them. He is hated by the people
      traffickers but he doesn't let it worry him. He just shrugs it off.

      The priest sleeps little, reads a lot and never switches off his
      mobile telephone. "I like to fish and collect mushrooms, but I have
      little time for myself," he said. The government provides only 17,000
      Euros a year to fund the centre and Father Savvas survives on church
      offerings and a small state pension, much of which he uses to
      subsidies the shelter. He blames the Cypriot authorities for failing
      to ban "artistes" visas, the police for "sometimes closing their
      eyes" to the problem and the judiciary for being "often too lenient"
      with criminals. As for the Orthodox church, he regrets that it does
      not get more involved in the issue. "I do not ask for money, but I
      wish they would more often offer a helping hand to these women," he
      said. His crusade presents him with a moral dilemma. "My refuge is
      not the answer. When I save one woman, two others arrive in their place.

      I sometimes think I am actually encouraging trafficking. "We have to
      pursue prevention by providing information to these women in their
      own countries." While his rejection of abortion has attracted
      criticism-he promotes adoption of victims' children-there can be no
      doubt he is confronting a problem many others chose to ignore. But
      his efforts are not without sacrifice. Asked about the 10,000 Cypriot
      pound price he says has been put on his head by underworld bosses, he
      said, "10,000 pounds? I had thought bravery was a little more highly
      valued." When asked if he now fears for his life, he simply smiled
      and pointed to the sky, adding, "I have never been afraid of men, only Him."-AFP
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