And not just at Easter. ALIX NORMAN asks if faith still matters to us in this day and age

Cyprus has more public holidays than any other country in Europe. Why?

Well, in large part, you can thank religion: nine of our 15 holidays are related in one way or another to Greek Orthodoxy.

Granted, we share some of those with other countries; Greece in particular. And even European nations who follow a more secular calendar still tend to commemorate Easter, Easter Monday and Christmas. But here in Cyprus, we have quite a few religious celebrations that would be utterly unfamiliar to foreigners…

It’s unlikely that much of Milton Keynes enjoys a day off on Epiphany. Pentecost (Kataclysmos) passes unremarked in Madrid. The Assumption of the Virgin Mary (our August 15) is a normal working day in Oslo. And the Annunciation of the Virgin Mary, also Greek independence day, on March 25 is rarely cause for celebration in, say, Somerset.

In short, Cyprus is a pretty religious country. And not just in terms of its proclivity for celebration. Statistics from the latest round of the European Social Survey support the notion that faith is still alive and kicking on this island.

While just 40 per cent of Swedes and 50 per cent of Spaniards admit to a specific faith, Cyprus shares first place with Serbia in this category.

Some 0.7 per cent of local respondents were Maronite, 0.3 per cent were Muslim, and less than 2 per cent were other Christian religions. Which leaves an overwhelming majority of 97 per cent following Greek Orthodoxy.

Interestingly, this is an increase on the previous survey. In 2018, just 90 per cent of respondents were Greek Orthodox. No reason is given for this (did the pandemic make us more religious? Has the cost of living brought us to our knees in prayer? Suggestions welcome in the comments). The only thing we can be sure of is that almost everyone on the island practises Greek Orthodoxy in some form or another.

But are they actively practising, or is this more of a lip-service, Easter-and-Xmas sort of thing?

The answer is surprising. According to the survey, Cyprus scores higher on ‘How religious are you?’ than any other participating nation.

Ten per cent of the population claim to be ‘Very religious’, while almost three in five of the island’s residents fall into the overall ‘Yes, I am religious’ category.

Again, Serbia is the closest, closely followed by Poland and Israel. And Sweden and Spain have the lowest adherence to religion. Which does suggest a certain pattern: if, within living memory, a nation has experienced a serious conflict, war or invasion, does that make it more religious? Or, conversely, is religion actually part of the cause?

While we leave the historians and political analysts to wrangle over that one, let’s take a look at another stand-out statistic: how often Cyprus goes to church.

One quarter of the island claims to attend a religious service at least once a month. Fifteen per cent of us go once a week. And, overall, almost 80 per cent of the island is in church several times each year – beating the next closest country, Poland, by over 10 per cent.

“I go to a service several times a month, and drop by a church once or twice a week,” says 55-year-old executive assistant Fotini Michaelides. “In Limassol, there are many churches both old and new. I tend to choose a different one whenever I can; I go in and light a candle and spend a few moments in prayer.

“Life is not easy, especially in Cyprus and especially as we get older,” she adds. “Sometimes it feels that my faith is all that’s keeping me going.”

You’d think age has something to do with this – studies prove that as physical health declines, spirituality increases. And Cyprus does have a rapidly ageing population. But then so do Greece, Italy and Portugal.

feature alix cyprus scores higher on ‘how religious are you’ than any other participating nation

Cyprus scores higher on ‘How religious are you’ than any other participating nation

Something is making us head to church more often. And even when we’re not attending an organised religious gathering, we do like a good prayer: at 35 per cent, Cyprus has the highest number of residents who pray every single day.

“I go to church only on Easter or for memorial services,” says 31-year-old Larnaca resident Sotiris Kleanthous. “But I pray every day. And I know I’m not the only one of my friends who does this.”

While Sotiris admits that he may not be as strictly adherent to Orthodoxy as were his parents, his quiet faith is nevertheless important to him.

“Organised religion is not for me,” he says. “I’m not praying to the bearded white guy in the sky! But I do consider myself Greek Orthodox: I try to live by the moral code, never harming others or doing bad things.”

In contrast, just 13 per cent of Austria and 12 per cent of Germany chat with their deities on a daily basis. Meanwhile, the Church of England reports that just 48 per cent of adults have prayed within their lifetimes.

“In Cyprus, religion is still very much a part of our lives I think,” says 26-year-old Irene Petrou. “My grandmother goes to her church in Agros every day. Here in Nicosia, I’m too busy to do that. But I still pray every day. Our faith is something we are brought up with, I think; it’s part of our identity in a way it isn’t in other countries.”

Irene’s mother lives in London, but still goes to church once or twice a week. “For Cypriots, religion is important wherever you are,” she adds. “We are a people who have suffered a lot; we still suffer even now.

“I am proud that I have my faith to help me. When you have nothing else, you ask God to help. And even if it’s not a holy day, even if you’re not in church, I believe He always answers.”