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Cyprus: An Island Rich in Christian Tradition

The Mediterranean island of Cyprus continues its strong Christian tradition.

“One day while they were offering worship to the Lord and keeping a fast, the Holy Spirit said, ‘I want Barnabas and Saul set apart for the work to which I have called them.’ So these two…went down to Seleucia and from there sailed to Cyprus.”

The year was 45 A.D. With these simple words from the Acts of the Apostles, an important chapter in the histories of both Christianity and of the island of Cyprus was recorded.

In the course of performing “the work to which God had called them,” Saint Paul was scourged and Saint Barnabas, a Cypriot himself, was eventually martyred in his native city of Salamis.

And yet, in spite of their rejection and humiliation, they succeeded in permanently rooting Christianity in the soil of the Mediterranean island.

As a result of that first missionary journey, as well as the work of many other Christians throughout the nineteen centuries that have passed since then, Cyprus possesses great wealth in Christian tradition.

The importance of Christianity in the life of the Cypriot people has persisted through the ages. His Beatitude, Archbishop Hilarion Makarios III, of the Greek Orthodox Church, has been President of the Republic of Cyprus since its independence in 1960. And the Greek Orthodox Church in Cyprus now ranks fifth in the world of Greek Orthodoxy.

Excavations have shown that civilization on Cyprus dates from the sixth century B.C. Pre-Christian settlers were attracted by the island’s abundant supply of copper.

Also attractive to these and subsequent peoples was the island’s strategic location. Positioned in the Mediterranean Sea, between Europe, Asia and Africa, Cyprus became both a steppingstone and a battlefield for neighboring nations. Among its many conquerors were the Egyptians, Phoenicians, Assyrians, Persians, Romans, Byzantines, Lusignans, Venetians, Turks and British.

The Christian history of Cyprus before the missionary journey of Saints Paul and Barnabas is sketchy and legend-filled. It is believed that Saint Lazarus came to Cyprus some time after he was raised from the dead, and that he remained there until his death and burial in Larnaca, on the island’s southern coast.

As we are told in the Acts, (11:19), it was the Christians fleeing persecution in Jerusalem after Saint Stephen’s martyrdom who were the first to bring the gospel to Cyprus.

However, the first real missionary efforts came with the journey of Saints Paul, Barnabas and Mark.

When these three arrived in 45 A.D., Cyprus was a Roman province. After landing at Salamis and preaching in the synagogues there, they travelled across the island to New Paphos. It was there, according to tradition, that Saint Paul was bound to a pillar and beaten, because of his teaching.

In spite of his initial humiliation, Paul succeeded in converting the Roman proconsul Sergius Paulus. Cyprus thus gained the important distinction of being the first country in the world to be governed by a Christian.

After several other missionary journeys, Paul and Barnabas then separated. Barnabas returned to Cyprus with Mark. In Salamis, he was stoned to death in the reign of the Emperor Nero, (54-68 A.D.)

Now the patron saint of Cyprus, Saint Barnabas – and the details of his death – played an important role in the Christian history of the island.

When Mark heard that Barnabas’ body was to be thrown into the sea, he buried it in a cave. The discovery of his remains, as well as a copy of Saint Matthew’s gospel in Barnabas’ own handwriting, so impressed the Emperor Zeno that in 478 A.D., he bestowed special privileges on the Archbishop of Cyprus. From that time, the Archbishop was permitted to sign in red ink, to wear a cape of imperial purple, and to carry an imperial scepter.

By 313 A.D., when Constantine officially recognized Christianity in the Edict of Milan, most of Cyprus had become Christian. The island was represented at the Council of Nicaea in 321 A.D.

Saint Helena herself, the mother of Constantine, visited Cyprus on her way back from Jerusalem in 327 A.D. She is said to have left a piece of the true cross there, and to have initiated the building of many churches on the island. It is also believed that Saint Helena founded the Monastery of Stavrovouni.

The monasteries in Cyprus attest to the importance of Christianity on the island. There are 19 of them – 11 are Greek Orthodox, 4 are Maronite, 3 are Latin and 1 is Armenian. Kykko, the largest and most famous of all, contains one of three icons believed to have been painted by the Apostle Luke.

Euripides once wrote of the “riches” of “Cyprus set in the sea.” For Christians, those “riches” are the abundance of Christian tradition which has accumulated in the nineteen centuries since St. Paul and St. Barnabas answered the call to do God’s work.

A.V. Crawford is a freelance journalist who has traveled in the Middle East.

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