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The Orthodox Church of Cyprus

by Michael J.L. La Civita

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By virtue of its dominant Hellenic culture, many consider Cyprus a part of Europe. Yet this eastern Mediterranean island of 792,000 people — divided into Greek– and Turkish–speaking zones — also figures in the annals of Asian history. Measuring just 144 miles latitudinally, 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: the Orthodox faith. This church constitutes more than 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.

Life of the early church. 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.

As the empire’s Greek–speaking church grew, a distinct school of theology developed. This school competed with a Syriac school that had grown around the empire’s Semitic– speaking Christians. Adherents of these two theological schools lived in the same provinces throughout the empire’s eastern half. Thus divided culturally and linguistically, contending believers sowed the seeds of discord that would eventually break up the church and weaken the empire. Today, most theologians agree these schisms reflected cultural, linguistic and philosophical differences rather than fundamental differences in faith.

The church of Cyprus, too, made its contribution. For example, Spyridon of Trimethous, shepherd, widower and bishop, played a prominent role in silencing Arius of Alexandria, whose teachings regarding the nature of Jesus prompted Constantine to call the first ecumenical council in 325.

Though a native of Judea, another Cypriot bishop, Ephiphanos of Salamis, participated in church councils in Antioch and Rome. Later he wrote a comprehensive treatise, Panarion, on how to deal with heresy. Today, the universal church venerates both men as saints.

By 325 the church in Cyprus — which formed part of the empire’s Prefecture of the East with its capital in Antioch — was directly dependent on the church of Antioch, whose patriarch appointed and consecrated the island’s bishops. The Cypriots also seemed to have adopted the theological culture and liturgical rites of the Antiochene church, which absorbed Hellenic, Jewish and Syriac traditions.

But the bishops of Cyprus rejected Antioch’s jurisdiction. In 431, the Cypriots pressed for independence and petitioned the bishops of the universal church, who had gathered in the city of Ephesus to solve another Christological dispute between the theological schools of Alexandria and Antioch. The council decided in Alexandria’s favor. In addition, the council declared the church of Cyprus independent.

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Tags: Church history Greece Cyprus The Orthodox Church of Cyprus