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The Orthodox Church of Cyprus

By virtue of its dominant Hellenic culture, many consider Cyprus a part of Europe. Yet this eastern Mediterranean island of 792,000 people — divided into Greek– and Turkish–speaking zones — also figures in the annals of Asian history. Measuring just 144 miles latitudinally, Cyprus lies just 45 miles south of Turkey, 63 miles west of Syria and 120 miles northwest of Israel.

The history of Cyprus is riddled with conflict. But one constant factor has maintained the isle’s Hellenic identity: the Orthodox faith. This church constitutes more than 90 percent of the island’s population and has served as a cultural repository and a bastion of faith even as rival Asian and European powers conquered Cyprus.

Life of the early church. From its origins in Roman Palestine, Christianity quickly took root among the many Greek–speaking populations of the Roman Empire.

Largely through the evangelical efforts of Sts. Paul and Barnabas, who as described in the Acts of the Apostles first brought the faith to Cyprus, these Greek–speaking Christians formed urban communities that evolved into important Christian centers. Rather than rejecting their Hellenic culture, these churches embraced it, providing philosophical and theological vocabularies that later helped define the teachings of Jesus among the empire’s elite.

As the empire’s Greek–speaking church grew, a distinct school of theology developed. This school competed with a Syriac school that had grown around the empire’s Semitic– speaking Christians. Adherents of these two theological schools lived in the same provinces throughout the empire’s eastern half. Thus divided culturally and linguistically, contending believers sowed the seeds of discord that would eventually break up the church and weaken the empire. Today, most theologians agree these schisms reflected cultural, linguistic and philosophical differences rather than fundamental differences in faith.

The church of Cyprus, too, made its contribution. For example, Spyridon of Trimethous, shepherd, widower and bishop, played a prominent role in silencing Arius of Alexandria, whose teachings regarding the nature of Jesus prompted Constantine to call the first ecumenical council in 325.

Though a native of Judea, another Cypriot bishop, Ephiphanos of Salamis, participated in church councils in Antioch and Rome. Later he wrote a comprehensive treatise, Panarion, on how to deal with heresy. Today, the universal church venerates both men as saints.

By 325 the church in Cyprus — which formed part of the empire’s Prefecture of the East with its capital in Antioch — was directly dependent on the church of Antioch, whose patriarch appointed and consecrated the island’s bishops. The Cypriots also seemed to have adopted the theological culture and liturgical rites of the Antiochene church, which absorbed Hellenic, Jewish and Syriac traditions.

But the bishops of Cyprus rejected Antioch’s jurisdiction. In 431, the Cypriots pressed for independence and petitioned the bishops of the universal church, who had gathered in the city of Ephesus to solve another Christological dispute between the theological schools of Alexandria and Antioch. The council decided in Alexandria’s favor. In addition, the council declared the church of Cyprus independent.

In 488, the emperor Zeno confirmed the autocephaly of the Cypriot church and granted its metropolitan archbishop the right to sign his name in cinnabar, then reserved for the emperor and the patriarchs; to hold an imperial scepter rather than an episcopal crosier; and to wear a purple mantle rather than the normal black. The metropolitan archbishop of Cyprus retains these privileges to the present day.

Arab Muslims. These internecine conflicts in the church weakened Byzantium. The Arabs, a Semitic people from the Arabian Peninsula spurred on by the monotheistic teachings of Muhammad, conquered Byzantine Syria, Palestine and Egypt by 641.

Intermittent raids on Cyprus by the Arabs soon followed. Towns were sacked and trade was disrupted. An Arab garrison eventually held the island, forcing the evacuation of its people to Hellespont, near Constantinople, around 685. Emperor Justinian II renamed Hellespont “Nea Justiniana” and gave the exiled archbishop of Cyprus primacy over the local community.

Meanwhile, the emperor negotiated with his Arab foe, Caliph 'Abd al-Malik, to rule Cyprus jointly, establishing in 688 an administrative and fiscal condominium rare in the history of international law. Until 965, when a resurgent Byzantium ended the agreement and reintegrated the isle into the empire, Cyprus hosted separate bases for Arab and Byzantine soldiers while taxes were collected for the Christian emperor and the Muslim caliph alike.

By 698, most Cypriots returned from their exile in Asia Minor. One reminder of this era exists today: The official title of the island’s Orthodox metropolitan is “Archbishop of Nea Justiniana and All Cyprus.”

Latin Crusaders. For nearly two centuries, Christian life in Byzantine Cyprus flourished. Eparchies increased. Members of the imperial family and courtiers founded monasteries. Clergy organized pilgrimages. Bishops built churches and commissioned elaborate iconographic schemes. Ascetics authored works in Byzantine Greek. And, judging by the sophisticated architecture of the era’s churches and the quality of the art, Cyprus maintained close ties to Constantinople and its workshops.

These ties were ruptured, however, when soldiers of the Third Crusade, led by King Richard the Lion–Hearted of England, suddenly took the island in 1191, imprisoning the Byzantine governor. A few years later, in 1204, soldiers of the Fourth Crusade sacked Constantinople, evicting Byzantium’s emperor and patriarch and installing their own.

The empire collapsed in the confusion. City–states emerged — some ruled by exiled members of the Byzantine imperial family, others by Latin nobles — that vied for control of commerce and territory. Cyprus, which King Richard later sold to a former Crusader king of Jerusalem, remained in the hands of the Latins until 1570.

These actions further widened the rift between the Byzantine East and Latin West created by the Great Schism of 1054, in which the pope and the ecumenical patriarch excommunicated each other.

Repression. The Latins reduced the power of the island’s Hellenic Orthodox hierarchy. A Latin archdiocese and three suffragan sees were introduced in 1196 and all Orthodox clergy were subordinated to them. Encouraged by the decrees of the Fourth Lateran Council in 1215, local synods exiled the archbishop of Nea Justiniana and All Cyprus; reduced the number of Orthodox bishops to four; compelled them to reside in remote villages; confiscated properties and expropriated income. Resistance was dealt with ruthlessly.

Latin Catholic missionaries flooded Cyprus. They founded monasteries, reordered Byzantine Orthodox churches for Latin Catholic use and later built elaborate Gothic cathedrals that exposed their northern European origins.

Cyprus fell to the Ottoman Turks in 1570. The island’s weakened Greek–speaking communities (who were considered neither Catholics by the Latins nor Orthodox by mainland Orthodox clerics) greeted the forces of the Muslim sultan as deliverers.

Dormancy and resurgence. The Ottoman Turks — who had taken Constantinople in 1453 and assumed the mantle of its emperors — banished the Latin hierarchy of Cyprus, recognized its long suffering Orthodox community, reconstituted its hierarchy and appointed the metropolitan archbishop as head of the Greek–speaking millet. This 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. But charging the Cypriot Orthodox hierarchy with responsibility for governing and controlling its own people proved to be a double–edged sword.

When, in 1821, the Greek cause for independence broke out throughout the empire, the Ottoman governor of Cyprus suspected his Greek–speaking Orthodox bishops as sympathizers. He summoned the bishops as well as prominent priests, monks and members of the laity to his palace. There, they were executed. The imposition of heavy taxes penalized the church further until Great Britain leased the island in 1878.

At the outbreak of World War I, Britain annexed Cyprus. The island’s Orthodox majority rejoiced, seeing the annexation as the first step toward enosis, or union with the independent kingdom of Greece. These hopes were dashed as Britain tightened its control and repressed the Orthodox Church, which it rightly saw as the force behind Hellenic pride and nationalism.

The British exiled the island’s Orthodox hierarchy — including the metropolitan archbishop — when it crushed a popular uprising in 1931. After World War II, a reconstituted Orthodox hierarchy enhanced the relevance of the church further, promoting spiritual renewal, bolstering catechetical activities and instituting cultural, educational and pastoral programs. In 1960, when Britain granted the island independence, the populace elected as president Makarios III, Archbishop of Nea Justiniana and All Cyprus, a position he held until his death in 1977.

Union with Greece continued to lure Cyprus’s Greek–speaking majority. In 1974, a military coup in Greece provoked clashes between the island’s Greek– and Turkish–speaking citizens, prompting a Turkish invasion of the island and the establishment of the “Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus.”

In the process, ancient communities were uprooted, churches and monasteries looted or destroyed and Orthodox access to the region’s shrines and churches, denied. This division of Cyprus continues, but tensions among the isle’s communities are fading. Today all Cypriots, Christian and Muslim, Greek–and Turkish–speaking, have access to religious sites throughout the island. Yet many churches and monasteries in the north remain in desperate need of repair.

While Archbishop Chrysostomos II no longer wields complete power, political and spiritual, he remains a central figure in the life of the nation, which is also considered among the most religious in the European Union. Monastic and parish life thrives even as Cyprus evolves into a tourist haven.

Michael La Civita is the executive editor of ONE magazine.

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