ONE Magazine

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Catholic Near East Welfare Association

Celebrating 50 years | God • World • Human Family • Church


An isle of Hellenic Christianity

From its origins in Roman Palestine, Christianity quickly took root among the Greek-speaking populations of the Roman Empire. According to the Acts of the Apostles, Sts. Paul and Barnabas brought the Gospel to Cyprus — an island with deep Hellenic roots. Mainly urban dwellers, these early Christian Cypriots formed local churches that evolved into important Christian centers. Rather than rejecting their Hellenic culture, these churches embraced it, helping to provide the philosophical and theological vocabularies that later defined the teachings of Jesus among the empire’s Greek-speaking communities.

Once dependent on the church of Antioch, whose patriarch appointed and ordained its bishops, the church of Cyprus has been autocephalous since the Council of Ephesus in the year 431. In 488, Emperor Zeno confirmed the independence of the Cypriot church and granted its metropolitan archbishop several privileges, including the right to sign his name in cinnabar, previously reserved for the emperor and the patriarchs; to hold an imperial scepter instead of a crosier; and to wear a purple mantle rather than the traditional black.

Demographics. Coveted for its copper mines, timber and strategic ports, Cyprus has been dominated by competing civilizations since the days of ancient Persia and Greece. By virtue of its dominant Hellenic culture, Cyprus has long been considered part of Europe, yet its geographic proximity to the Middle East equally colors its culture, history and politics.

More than three-quarters of its 1.1 million people are ethnic Greeks, 18 percent are ethnic Turks and 5 percent include ethnic Arab and Armenian communities as well as recent immigrants. The vast majority of Greek Cypriots belong to the Orthodox Church of Cyprus. Most Turkish Cypriots are Sunni Muslims and live in the northern portion of the country, which they now call the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus. Other Christian communities include the Armenian Apostolic, Latin and Maronite churches.

Sociopolitical situation. Tensions between Cyprus’s Greek majority and Turkish minority have marked the island’s modern political history since its independence from Great Britain in 1960. Constitutionally, a complex system of checks and balances was provided to protect the Turkish minority, including the reservation of parliamentary and cabinet level seats, such as the vice presidency, for Cypriot Turks. The involvement of regional powers, particularly Greece and Turkey, exacerbated tensions and ultimately led to the division of the country along ethnic lines in 1974. Cypriot Turks have declared their independence, which only Turkey recognizes.

From 1960 until his death in 1977 (except for a six-month period in 1974), Makarios III, Archbishop of Nea Justiniana and All Cyprus, governed Cyprus as its first democratically elected president. Though the archbishop once longed for enosis, or union with the Greek “motherland,” he worked for a strong and united Cyprus as its president.

In May 2004, Cyprus entered the European Union despite the ongoing division of the country. In 2008, Greek Cypriot and Turkish Cypriot leaders launched unification discussions. The United Nations has proposed a partnership that “would comprise a federal government with a single international personality, along with a Turkish Cypriot Constituent State and a Greek Cypriot Constituent State, which would be of equal status.”

Economic situation. The Greek Cypriot economy follows free-market principles. Based largely on tourism, the island has experienced erratic growth rates in the last decade, largely as a result of political instability. Cyprus joined the European Exchange Rate Mechanism in 2005 and adopted the euro as its national currency in 2008. Cyprus has fared better in the economic downturn than many other Eurozone countries, but it has been in a recession since mid-2009. The service sector, including its booming tourist industry, accounts for nearly four-fifths of the country’s overall GDP.

Religious situation. According to a survey sponsored by the European Commission in 2005, Cypriots are generally considered among the most religious in Europe. Parish life thrives among the island’s Christians, Catholic and Orthodox. In the Turkish-occupied north, few vestiges of the Christian faith remain; churches have been plundered, converted to other uses or destroyed. Icons have disappeared, having been sold on the blackmarket.

When Cyprus fell to the Ottoman Turks in the late 16th century, the sultan appointed the Orthodox metropolitan archbishop as head of the Greek-speaking minority. As “ethnarch” of the Greek Orthodox community and vested with authority over most of its civil matters, the archbishop reinforced the role of the Orthodox Church as custodian of Cyprus’s Hellenic culture, warden of the isle’s Byzantine identity and spiritual guardian of its Christians.

After crushing a Greek-Cypriot popular uprising in 1931, the British exiled the Orthodox hierarchy and attempted to secularize the church’s institutions — the British concluded that the Orthodox leadership was guilty of collusion with Cypriot nationals in advocating union with Greece. After World War II, a reconstituted Orthodox hierarchy enhanced the relevance of the church further, promoting spiritual renewal, bolstering catechesis and instituting educational and pastoral programs. The Orthodox Church of Cyprus remains a prominent force in Cypriot society and a powerful symbol of Cyprus’s Hellenic identity.

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