The church of Cyprus traces its origins back to apostolic times, the island having been evangelized by Sts. Paul and Barnabas according to the Book of Acts (13:4-13). Because the island was administered as part of the civil province of the East, whose capital was Antioch, the Patriarchs of Antioch for a time claimed jurisdiction over the Cypriot church and the right to appoint its Archbishop. But the Council of Ephesus in 431 recognized the church’s independence and directed that the Archbishops of Cyprus should be elected by the synod of Cypriot bishops.
From the mid-7th century to the mid-10th century, there were frequent Arab attacks against Cyprus that often wrought widespread devastation. Because of this Arab threat, Byzantine Emperor Justinian II evacuated the Christian population of the island from 688 to 695 and settled many of them in a new city on the Dardanelles called Nea Justiniana. The Archbishop of Cyprus took up residence there and was given the additional title of Archbishop of Nea Justiniana, an honor that he retains to this day. The decisive victory of Byzantine Emperor Nicephorus II Phocas (963-969) over the Arabs inaugurated a period of peace during which churches and monasteries were rebuilt and the church flourished. In the 11th and 12th centuries, however, there was growing resentment against the oppressive rule of successive Byzantine governors who often used Cyprus as a basis for rebellion against the Emperors in Constantinople.
In 1191 the island was conquered by King Richard the Lionheart of England, who had come to the area on a crusade. A few months later, Richard sold the island to the Knights Templar, who then sold it in 1192 to the Frenchman Guy de Lusignan, the exiled King of the Crusader state of Jerusalem. He established a western feudal society in Cyprus and a dynasty that would last nearly 300 years. During this time a Latin hierarchy was erected, to the detriment of the Orthodox. By 1260 the Orthodox monasteries had been made subject to the Latin bishops, the number of Orthodox bishops on the island had been reduced from 15 to four, and all of them had been placed under the authority of the new Latin Archbishop of Cyprus. Several western monastic orders founded houses on the island, often benefiting from the confiscation of Orthodox ecclesiastical property. This situation changed little with the conquest of Cyprus by Venice in 1489.
In 1571 the island fell to the Ottoman Turks. The Turks ended the feudal social system, banished the Latin hierarchy, and recognized the Orthodox. Although the Orthodox were allowed to resume electing their own Archbishop, they retained only the four dioceses the Latins had allowed them. As was true elsewhere in the Ottoman Empire, the Orthodox bishops became civil as well as spiritual leaders of their own ethnic Greek people. Thus when the Greek revolution broke out in 1821, the bishops were considered sympathetic to the Greek cause. In the same year, all the bishops and many other prominent churchmen were summoned to the governor’s palace and murdered by the guards. Later a new hierarchy was sent to the island by the Patriarchate of Antioch. These bishops were able to improve the situation of the Greek community somewhat, but it still suffered under very heavy taxation.
In 1878 Great Britain leased the island from Turkey and in 1914 annexed it outright. A political movement soon developed in the majority Greek Cypriot community in favor of union (enosis) with Greece. Orthodox religious leaders were involved in this movement, in keeping with their now traditional role in political affairs. When Britain granted independence to the island in 1960, the Archbishop of Cyprus, Makarios III, was elected the country’s first president. Clashes between the Greek and Turkish communities culminated in 1974 with a Turkish invasion of the island and the establishment of the “Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus.” Many churches and monasteries in the north were destroyed or looted in the process, and the Orthodox were denied all access to churches or monasteries in the area. On November 30, 1994, two priests were allowed to cross into the north and celebrate the Eucharist at St. Andrew monastery on the Karpas peninsula, the first such event in 20 years. In 2003, Turkish Cypriot authorities relaxed many of these restrictions and began to allow relatively unimpeded contact between the two communities. Greek and Turkish Cypriots are now allowed to visit religious sites throughout the island, but many churches and monasteries in the north are still in desperate need of repair.
In April 1973 a crisis began in the church of Cyprus when the three Metropolitans of the island declared the deposition of Archbishop Makarios because they considered his role as President to be incompatible with being a bishop. But in July the three Metropolitans were themselves deposed by a “major synod” made up of bishops from the Patriarchates of Alexandria, Antioch, Jerusalem, and the Church of Greece. New bishops were appointed, and the number of dioceses in Cyprus was later increased from four to six.
The Church of Cyprus faced another difficult situation beginning in April 2000 when Archbishop Chrysostomos, who had led the church since 1977, fell and suffered a head injury. In 2004 he was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease, and lapsed into a coma in 2005. Because the Archbishop’s condition appeared to be irreversible, and the church canons did not provide a clear way to deal with the Archbishop’s incapacity, in early 2006 the Cypriot Holy Synod asked the Patriarch of Constantinople to call a special enlarged synod to deal with the question. This “Greater Synod” took place in Switzerland on May 17, 2006 and was presided over by Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew. The Patriarchs of Alexandria, Antioch and Jerusalem were also present, along with nine other bishops from those churches and the bishops of Cyprus. The Greater Synod declared the office of Archbishop of Cyprus vacant, and charged the Cyprus Holy Synod with setting in motion the complex process of electing a new Archbishop. The process concluded on November 5, 2006, with the election of Bishop Chrysostomos of Paphos. The new Archbishop has vigorously supported efforts to reunite the island. In June 2007 he paid a historic visit to Pope Benedict XVI in Rome. He met with Pope Benedict a second time when the Pope visited Cyprus in June 2010, and the two men met again in Rome in 2011.
On February 12, 2007, the Cyprus Holy Synod decided to re-establish some of the defunct dioceses on the island, and to raise the total number of bishops from nine to sixteen. According to the most recent (2011) census of the government-controlled section of the island, some 89.1% of the population self-identified as belonging to the Orthodox Church of Cyprus. There are three male and seven female monasteries attached to the Archbishopric. Seven more male and nine female monasteries are dependent on the local bishops. The most prominent male community is Kykkos monastery located high in the Troodos mountains. It staffs the church’s seminary, Barnabas the Apostle Theological School, in Nicosia.
Head: Archbishop Chrysostomos II (born 1941, elected 2006)
Title: Archbishop of Nea Justiniana and All Cyprus
Residence: Nicosia, Cyprus