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From its origins in Roman Palestine, Christianity quickly took root among the Greek-speaking populations of the Roman Empire. According to the Acts of the Apostles, Sts. Paul and Barnabas brought the Gospel to Cyprus — an island with deep Hellenic roots. Mainly urban dwellers, these early Christian Cypriots formed local churches that evolved into important Christian centers. Rather than rejecting their Hellenic culture, these churches embraced it, helping to provide the philosophical and theological vocabularies that later defined the teachings of Jesus among the empire’s Greek-speaking communities.

Once dependent on the church of Antioch, whose patriarch appointed and ordained its bishops, the church of Cyprus has been autocephalous since the Council of Ephesus in the year 431. In 488, Emperor Zeno confirmed the independence of the Cypriot church and granted its metropolitan archbishop several privileges, including the right to sign his name in cinnabar, previously reserved for the emperor and the patriarchs; to hold an imperial scepter instead of a crosier; and to wear a purple mantle rather than the traditional black.

Demographics. Coveted for its copper mines, timber and strategic ports, Cyprus has been dominated by competing civilizations since the days of ancient Persia and Greece. By virtue of its dominant Hellenic culture, Cyprus has long been considered part of Europe, yet its geographic proximity to the Middle East equally colors its culture, history and politics.

More than three-quarters of its 1.1 million people are ethnic Greeks, 18 percent are ethnic Turks and 5 percent include ethnic Arab and Armenian communities as well as recent immigrants. The vast majority of Greek Cypriots belong to the Orthodox Church of Cyprus. Most Turkish Cypriots are Sunni Muslims and live in the northern portion of the country, which they now call the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus. Other Christian communities include the Armenian Apostolic, Latin and Maronite churches.

Sociopolitical situation. Tensions between Cyprus’s Greek majority and Turkish minority have marked the island’s modern political history since its independence from Great Britain in 1960. Constitutionally, a complex system of checks and balances was provided to protect the Turkish minority, including the reservation of parliamentary and cabinet level seats, such as the vice presidency, for Cypriot Turks. The involvement of regional powers, particularly Greece and Turkey, exacerbated tensions and ultimately led to the division of the country along ethnic lines in 1974. Cypriot Turks have declared their independence, which only Turkey recognizes.

From 1960 until his death in 1977 (except for a six-month period in 1974), Makarios III, Archbishop of Nea Justiniana and All Cyprus, governed Cyprus as its first democratically elected president. Though the archbishop once longed for enosis, or union with the Greek “motherland,” he worked for a strong and united Cyprus as its president.

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Tags: Turkey Greece Cyprus The Orthodox Church of Cyprus