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ORTHODOX
from issue no. 12 - 2006

CYPRUS. An interview with Archbishop Chrysostomos

A Church founded by the apostles


On this island lies the sepulcher of Barnabas, who accompanied Paul on his first apostolic journey. We met the head of the Orthodox Church, who has also always had an important role in the civic life of the Cypriot people


Interview with the Orthodox Archbishop Chrysostomos by Giovanni Ricciardi


The Orthodox Church of Cyprus has a central role in the recent history of the island. It was its archbishop, Makarios III, who led the country in the struggle for independence from Great Britain. And, in a case more unique than rare, he himself became, without leaving his religious office, the first president of the Republic from 1960 up to his death, in 1977. He experienced exile, he escaped the coup d’état in 1974 and had to watch the Turkish occupation of northern Cyprus and the separation between the two communities of the island, Greek-Cypriot (Orthodox) and Turkish-Cypriot (Moslem), still in force after 32 years. With his successor, Chrysostomos, the Church has returned to the role of spiritual guide of the nation, fostering its democratic development and accompanying the country toward entry into Europe. The archbishop, sick for some time, is no longer capable of exercising his ministry. Thus, last November, the Cypriots elected a new pastor, Chrysostomos, who bears the same name as his precursor and who, as bishop of Paphos, the most ancient See in the island, had already been acting as “substitute” in the leadership of the Cypriot Church.

Orthodox Archbishop Chrysostomos during the procession to the Cathedral of Saint John of Nicosia for his enthronement as new archbishop of Cyprus, 12 November  2006

Orthodox Archbishop Chrysostomos during the procession to the Cathedral of Saint John of Nicosia for his enthronement as new archbishop of Cyprus, 12 November 2006

Your Eminence, Christianity in Cyprus has a bimillennial tradition. Can you briefly recount the salient points in its history?
CHRYSOSTOMOS:The Church of Cyprus goes back to the apostles and preserves the apostolic succession intact. In 46 A.D., Paul and Barnabas, during their first missionary journey, landed at Paphos, capital of what was then a province of the Roman Empire. Here, according to the Acts, Saul changed his name to Paul. And here the conversion of the Roman governor Sergius Paulus took place. A second and longer missionary journey was then undertaken by Barnabas along with the evangelist Mark. They spread Christianity throughout the island. Thus the apostle Barnabas is considered the real and true founder of the Church of Cyprus: a Church with a long tradition, an important role in history and many ancient testimonies to Christianity. The bishops of Cyprus participated in the Council of Nicea, and the Church appointed its own head from 431 on. After the Byzantine period, the island was subject to foreign domination: the Franks and Venetians brought Latin Christianity; then came the long Ottoman period, from 1571 to 1878, and finally the English. And so, in the course of the centuries the archbishop has assumed the function of “ethnarch” also, that is of representative of the Greek people of the island before the constituted power. His role has also been invested with a political character. For this reason in Cyprus the archbishop is elected directly by the people.
To what period does this system of election date back?
CHRYSOSTOMOS: The people have participated in the election of the bishop since the Ottoman period, when the Orthodox Church, after the ousting of the Venetians, recovered its independence. It is a unique case in the Orthodox tradition also. The people’s participation was further extended in the last century. And the election of the bishop is felt greatly by the people, who in this way recognize themselves more directly in their own pastor.
Was it like that for your election also?
CHRYSOSTOMOS: The election took place in three phases. First the people voted, last September, 1,400 lay representatives, who in turn chose from among themselves 100 delegates. These 100 lay people, along with 34 members of the clergy, among whom the bishops and the abbots of the monasteries, were finally called to designate the new pastor.
Was it this popular investiture that enabled Archbishop Makarios to set himself as head of the Greek-Cypriots in the struggle for freedom?
CHRYSOSTOMOS: Archbishop Makarios, as father of all, accepted by all, aimed to lead the new State in the hope of resolving the problems that arose with the Turkish-Cypriots after independence. He always tried to overcome these obstacles, with the intention of then leaving the position to someone else. Unfortunately many problems remained unresolved and the final consequence of all this was the Turkish invasion.
Does the Church of Cyprus still feel invested with a political role today?
CHRYSOSTOMOS:The times have changed. A governing class elected by the people exists, capable of leading the country without the Church having to play a role of substitution in relation to the institutions. The Church however continues to represent the national identity of the Greek-Cypriots and works so that they can live in peace and harmony with the minorities that live on Cyprus, without problems and without clashes.
What can the Church do today to encourage rapprochement and the reunification of the country?
CHRYSOSTOMOS:The Church of Cyprus always prays for peace and harmony among all. We don’t distinguish between religion or origins, we feel ourselves children of the same God. We want to live together in peace in this country. We are convinced that, for real common progress, Cyprus must be a single State, but we accept the idea of a federal State with a common government. Unfortunately Turkey doesn’t pursue the same objective, but aims at the creation of two separate States, the better to safeguard its own interests. Its purpose is to enter the European Union without renouncing Cyprus. And the way it has of “wasting” time, without ever making significant steps ahead, plays in its favor.
On 30 November, the feastday of Saint Andrew the apostle, the Pope met Patriarch Bartholomew I in Constantinople. How did the Church of Cyprus view this event?
CHRYSOSTOMOS: A strong bond between Rome and Cyprus exists. In 1996, when I was bishop of Pafos, in commemoration of the 1,950th anniversary of Paul’s landing on the island, I decided to invite to Paphos all the bishops of the cities marked by the passage of the apostle. I still remember with joy the meeting I had on that occasion with the Pope’s envoy, Cardinal Cassidy. Additionally, if the tomb of Paul is in Rome, his companion Barnabas is buried in Cyprus, in a monastery that unfortunately today has been transformed into a museum, located as it is in the occupied north. And certainly Cyprus’s bond with the See of Constantinople is also strong. The Cypriots have, among other things, a profound veneration for the apostle Andrew, even if the apostle’s visit to Cyprus is less certainly documented compared to Paul’s. But this tradition is also a sign of the vocation of Cyprus as bridge between East and West.
The president of the Greek Republic Tassos Papadopoulos met Pope Benedict XVI on 10 November last, presenting him with a book documenting the state of degradation of the ecclesial patrimony of north Cyprus. He further invited the Pope to visit Cyprus. What do you think of this?
CHRYSOSTOMOS: The situation of the churches in the occupied north is one of our most serious preoccupations and we hope that the Catholic Church is sensitive to the problem and will help us to put pressure on the international community to raise the question and find a solution that appears ever more pressing and impossible to renounce if we want to restore a patrimony of culture and art that belongs to all of humanity. As for the Pope, it would be wonderful for us if, retracing backwards the footsteps of Saint Paul, Benedict XVI could one day go to Jerusalem, even perhaps making a stop in Cyprus.


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