By George Koumoullis
RELIGIOUS tolerance, or the recognition of the freedom of religious belief and the equality of all religions before the law, is safeguarded by Article 18 of the Cyprus Constitution.
It should be considered extremely worrying that this article of the constitution is being brazenly and systematically violated while criticising this contempt for the constitution is both rare and anaemic. You will not hear any protests about the sight of icons and other symbols of Greek Orthodoxy in hospitals or government offices. Nor will you hear any objections to the Holy Skull of Apostle Andreas (not to mention the relics of other saints) being received with the honours reserved for a head of state (!!) by the leadership of the Republic, or that the defence minister this year welcomed the Holy Light on Easter Saturday with Archbishop Chrysostomos.
Nor, of course, will you hear any protest over the failure to separate public administration and public life from the practices of Christian worship and ceremony, as is imperative in a secular state. Only last week, the Cyprus police force honoured, with religious banners and church symbols, its patron saint Ayia Irini.
There are, though, more striking examples of how religious tolerance is being brutally attacked, offended and violated. All schools are closed on the name day of Archbishop Chrysostomos, including the English School with its sizeable number of Muslim students. On Good Friday flags are flown at half-mast in many military camps. At our schools, religious studies is taught like at Sunday school – propaganda for Greek Orthodoxy – instead of as the study of religion from a secular viewpoint.
What has an even more destructive role on the secular state, though, is the archbishop’s passion for interfering, unfortunately with our tolerance, in the country’s political life. The apogee of this interference was his plea for people to vote for Nicos Anastasiades in the presidential elections of 2013, pointing out that everyone was needed in the service of the country. The church must state its position clearly was Chrysostomos’ response when he was asked whether he should be accused of interfering in political life.
It is possible that the archbishop considered this interference normal, and in fairness it is normal in a country controlled by the clergy. It was in vain to expect the politicians to censure Chrysostomos for this comment, especially Anastasiades who was at the centre of it. Instead of putting the archbishop in his place, Anastasiades said he was moved, in this way dealing a blow to the prestige of the Cyprus Republic. Chrysostomos is not satisfied with being the shepherd of the faithful, but seeks to also become the shepherd of all citizens and the shepherd of ideas, which he has no right to be.
The state’s official stance is tragic. Not only does it put up with it, but encourages the church’s involvement in politics by arranging for every important guest who visits Cyprus to meet with the archbishop. Unfortunately, the media have a big responsibility for the blurred line separating church and state – they never miss the opportunity to ask the archbishop to express his view on every issue under the sun. You do not know whether to laugh or cry at the theatre of the absurd staged in Cyprus with Chrysostomos as its protagonist, readily analysing, with a tone of gravitas and the air of a Harvard economics graduate, the problem of unemployment, the returns on investments, the hotel business, quarrying and the level of interest rates. In no other country of the world do economic theories flow from the mouth of an archbishop.
Chrysostomos does not perform the conventional role of an archbishop. He has no desire to restrict himself to his church duties, to the spiritual and social work of the church. He is not very interested in offering spiritual guidance because his forte is economics. As the Athens newspaper To Vima wrote on 16 November, 2014, “the Church of Cyprus in Archbishop Chrysostomos II has found since 2006 a capable manager who at times makes moves that would be envied by the most aggressive players of Wall Street.” This description, re-interpreted, suggests that the title of CEO (chief executive officer) of church enterprises would be a more fitting title for Chrysostomos than archbishop.
Some Cypriots applaud his involvement in politics. Surely, they would have a very different opinion if they learnt at school how repressive, obscurantist, fascistic and tyrannical theocracies and clergy run states are, and how the church’s involvement in the powers of the state has proved disastrous not only for the state but also for the church. But how can this type of education be adopted, when the ministry of education is under the complete control of the church? Any changes to the history and religious studies syllabuses require the approval of the archbishop.
Perhaps Cyprus needs its own version of Kemal Ataturk so that church and state can be severed with one strike of the sword. A strike to end the clergy’s control while boosting religious tolerance which is one of the main pillars of democracy? Now this is sensible question.
George Koumoullis is an economist and social scientist