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27 October 2015
Orthodox icons seen in Larnaca, Cyprus. (photo: Hannes Magerstaedt/Getty Images)
By virtue of its dominant Hellenic culture, many consider Cyprus a part of Europe. Yet this eastern Mediterranean island of 1.2 million people — divided into Greek- and Turkish-speaking zones — also figures in the annals of Asian history. 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 into the modern era: the Orthodox Church. This faith community constitutes about 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.
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.
Cypriot Christian Orthodox devotees carry a bier depicting Christ’s preparation for burial during a Good Friday procession, at the Ayios Georgios Exorinos Church in the Cypriot Turkish controlled North on 18 April 2014 in Famagusta, Cyprus. (photo: Andrew Caballero-Reynolds/Getty Images)
The church of Cyprus, while linked to the churches of Antioch and Constantinople, flourished and became largely independent. In 488, the Eastern Roman (Byzantine) emperor, Zeno, confirmed this independence and granted the church’s metropolitan archbishop certain privileges that remain to the present day.
While Cyprus was taken in the seventh century by invading Arab Muslims, for nearly 300 years Cyprus was governed jointly by Byzantine and Muslim Arab governors — an arrangement rare in the history of international law. In 988, however, the Byzantines asserted complete control and Christian life in Byzantine Cyprus flourished. 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. The Latins reduced the power of the island’s Greek-speaking Orthodox hierarchy, exiled the archbishop and expropriated church property. Resistance was dealt with ruthlessly. Latin Catholic missionaries flooded Cyprus and founded monasteries and reordered Byzantine churches for Latin Catholic use.
When Cyprus fell to the Muslim Ottoman Turks in 1570, the island’s Greek-speaking communities (who were considered neither Catholics by the Latins nor Orthodox by mainland Greek Orthodox clerics) greeted the Turks as deliverers. The sultan of 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 community, or 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 Orthodox hierarchy of Cyprus with responsibility for governing its own people proved to be a double-edged sword.
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