Cyprus Mail
CM Regular ColumnistOpinion

Changing fortunes of the church in Cyprus

comment alper nuns go to view the body of archbishop chrysostomos
Nuns go to view the body of Archbishop Chrysostomos II
The death of Archbishop Chrysostomos II in context

By Alper Ali Riza

Never underestimate the importance to Greek Cypriots of the Church of Cyprus. The death of Archbishop Chrysostomos II on Monday week was as momentous to some Greek Cypriots as the death of Queen Elizabeth II was to the British.

As for Turkish Cypriot readers of this organ it is as well for them to know and understand the role of the Church of Cyprus in the life of the island because it is Cyprus’ oldest institution that preceded the Republic of Cyprus by nearly two millenniums. It is deeply rooted in the landscape of Cyprus and the psyche of its Greek Cypriot population.

Both the Greek Orthodox Church of Cyprus and the Turkish Muslim institution of Vakf were given a special status under the 1960 constitution to govern their internal affairs as they pleased, free from state control,

Unlike Archbishop Makarios, Cyprus’ first president who was head of state and government for 17 years, Chrysostomos did not hold political office. But he had strong views and was as politically and socially outspoken as he was controversial. His views on the Cyprob were staunchly nationalist, which is unsurprising for a Greek Cypriot Archbishop.

Recently, he playfully insisted he was above politics while endorsing Nicos Christodoulides’ candidacy for president. He loved making mischief and justified his frequent interventions in public discourse with a twinkle in his eye, claiming that like everyone else he was entitled to express his views freely.

In a constitutional monarchy like the one in Britain the king or queen has to be above politics, but the head of the Church of Cyprus has no constitutional role that requires him to be politically neutral, and it is a fact of life in Cyprus that the views of the church matter enormously to Greek Cypriots. If they matter, people should know what they are, whether one agrees with them or not. I did not agree with any of Archbishop Chrysostomos’ views but here I am defending the right he had to express them.

By all means “render unto Caesar things that are Caesar’s and unto God things that are God’s.” The passage is from the New Testament and is relied on to justify the separation of church and state; there is, however, an overlap between their demarcation lines, and the church is entitled to speak out provided it does so discreetly.

Cyprus became independent in 1960 but the Church of Cyprus has been independent since it was established on the island. Christianity was introduced to Cyprus with the arrival of Saint Paul and Saint Barnabas, who founded the church in the first century AD. Saint Paul was famously flogged 39 lashes by the Paphites and complained afterwards that “a man from Paphos is not good and if good is not from Paphos”. He used the Greek word agathos to mean good in the sense of a person without malice.

The Church of Cyprus survived the Romans, thrived under Byzantium and suffered under the Lusignians and Venetians. Its relationship with the Turks after they took it from the Venetians in 1571 was symbiotic – the church was accorded leadership of the Greek nation in return for acting as a tax collecting agency. Relations deteriorated markedly after the Greek war of independence in 1821 when the leadership of the church, including Archbishop Kyprianos, were executed.

In the 7th century the church removed to Byzantium during the Arab invasions of the time, which is why the prelate of Cyprus’ full title is Archbishop of Nea Justiniana and All Cyprus – Nea Justiniana was where the church was given sanctuary by Emperor Justinian.

The church went through a bad patch in the latter part of British rule. In 1956 Archbishop Makarios was banished to the Seychelles during the emergency between 1955-60. Makarios used his time in exile to improve his English and returned in triumph and became Cyprus’ first president in 1960.

However, in 1973 the three metropolitans, encouraged by the dictatorship in Greece, sought to defrock Makarios on the ground that as archbishop he was not supposed to be involved in politics.

He overruled them, but after he died in 1977 it was accepted by the church that elections to political office should not involve churchmen as candidates, presumably because an archbishop has an unfair advantage over other candidates.

The Church of Cyprus is Greek Cyprus’ answer to monarchy and like the UK acquired a new king and a new prime minister, the RoC will soon acquire a new archbishop and a new president.

Both are elected under universal suffrage although the election of archbishop is only partially democratic. Broadly it is the obverse of the election of the leader of the Conservative party in Britain.

Registered Greek Orthodox parishioners with a year’s residence vote whoever they want to be archbishop from of a list of clergymen. The three clergymen receiving most votes become official candidates whose names go forward before the Holy Synod of 16 that then votes to eliminate the candidate with the fewest votes unless a candidate receives 50 per cent plus one of the votes. If that happens, he is declared archbishop. If no candidate receives 50 per cent plus one the decision is made by simple majority.

I think that’s how it works but we shall see.

Alper Ali Riza is a king’s counsel in the UK and a retired part time judge

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