From an institution operating in the 1950s colonial setting and marked by its central role as the rallying point of the Greek Cypriot nationalist mobilization, the Church of Cyprus has transformed itself into an institution operating in a modern society. Its transformation resembles the general transformation of the Republic of Cyprus.
Originally, the Republic of Cyprus was established in 1960 as a bi-communal state of Turkish and Greek Cypriots. It was greatly affected by the events of 1974: the Turkish invasion of Cyprus, the occupation of nearly 40 % of the island by Turkish troops, and the subsequent ethnic cleansing between Greek and Turkish Cypriots. As a result of the events of 1974, two religiously homogeneous regions – the north and the south – were subsequently constructed. In 1983, the island’s northern part declared itself the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus (TRNC), but it has only been internationally recognized by Turkey. The TRNC’s population is overwhelmingly Muslim. After 1974, the island’s southern part, now home only to Greek Cypriots, kept the formal title of the Republic of Cyprus and to this day it remains the only international recognized State on the island. Since 1974, the Republic of Cyprus was extensively and rapidly modernized, thus transforming itself from a peasant-based society to an economically developed State that has, since 2004, joined the European Union (EU).
According to the 2011 census, the vast majority of the population is made up of Eastern – Orthodox Christians (89 %). The majority of these has Cypriot citizenship (87 %) and/or was born in Cyprus (83 %). In comparison to the 2001 census, there is an increase of Roman Catholics, Muslims and Protestants. Most Catholics and Muslims are non-EU citizens or were born in non-EU countries, whereas most Protestants come from EU countries.
Greek Cypriots have interpreted the 1974 events and the subsequent ethnic cleansing as a violent and painful cultural trauma. To rectify this painful emotional scar, they have insisted on a vision of future solution to the “Cyprus issue”, whereby displaced Greek Cypriots would be able to return to their ancestral homelands (villages and towns). The Church’s central role in local Greek Cypriot culture has been expressed through its endorsement of this popular vision of return to the ancestral lands that were lost due to the 1974 invasion. This role is performed through a series of cultural activities that highlight the plight of the post-1974 events for the people and the institution, as well as through the hierarchs’ public involvement in the politics of the “Cyprus issue”. Some of the hierarchs are well known for their more conciliatory attitudes, while others are known to represent far more hard line attitudes and to be more outspoken critics of the invasion – or to adopt more nationalistic attitudes, as their critics would say.
Following the 1974 Turkish invasion and the loss of extensive ecclesiastical holdings in the northern part of Cyprus, the Church legally transferred the right of disposition of these holdings to the government in order to empower the government in the on-going bi-communal talks. In exchange, the government assumed responsibility for partially paying clergy’s salaries. By 2012, the Church had over 500 parishes and churches stuffed with over 700 priests. There are also close to 60 monasteries and convents with over 300 monks and nuns.
In all other matters, the Church remains completely independent of government control. Church-State separation was imposed upon the Church as a consequence of British colonial rule (1878) and has since been maintained after the island’s independence (1960) from Great Britain. This has meant that the Church of Cyprus is self-governed and its rules and statutes are not subject to governmental or parliamentary oversight or review. The Church has maintained a prominent position in the island’s economic life. A multitude of ecclesiastical institutions (bishoprics, monasteries and the Archbishopric) control extensive holdings of property, hotels, fields & enterprises. Religious institutions held large portions of Cyprus’ banks.
The effect of the post-2008 economic crisis on the religious institutions’ finances has been extensive, and it is estimated that the Church’s losses amount to hundreds of millions of Euros. Since the ecclesiastical institutions enjoy full scale autonomy, there is no regularly reported listing of their holdings – nor is the Church subject to State oversight with regard to the management of its estates, businesses and various holdings. According to press reports, by 2008, the Archbishopric, the bishoprics and the monasteries collectively held assets worth roughly 847 million Euros. However, in the same year their losses amounted to close to 280 million Euros. These figures are merely indicative of the magnitude of the crisis for the religious institutions’ finances – and that became evident in later years. For example, the Kykkos Monastery was forced to cut down on the personnel and the activities of its own Research Center.
Institutionally, the post-1977 era was a period wherein the Holy Synod of the Church of Cyprus gradually emerged as a key administrative body for managing the Church’s affairs. Before 1977 the Archbishop ruled the Church’s affairs almost single-handedly. This was in large part the outcome of the small number of bishoprics. This meant that no complete Synod could convene, and hence issues that require synodical decision-making necessitated the participation of outsiders. Typically, these were high clergy from neighboring patriarchates and Churches. Following the 2006 archiepiscopal elections and the ascent of Chrysostomos II into the Archiepiscopal Throne, a new Constitutional Charter was promptly enacted in 2010. The new Constitution increased the overall number of episcopal and metropolitan eparchies in Cyprus, whereby allowing the Church to enjoy full institutional autonomy. It also decreased the laity’s participation in metropolitan elections, giving more power to the Synod.
The new Constitution altered the rules concerning the Church’s role in divorce proceedings. It is important to note that in Cyprus, the Church has kept a role in the process of legally granting divorces – which means that the Church exercises civil functions in this matter (as divorces were not granted by civil courts). Over the last twenty years, the Republic of Cyprus’ divorce rate has been raising sharply. In 1990, civil family courts have been established in the Republic of Cyprus. Since 1999, divorces of civil marriages are issued by the court, while Orthodox couples wishing to dissolve their marriage still need to undergo a “double” process – both in civil and ecclesiastical courts. Consequently, and in spite of popular demand towards simplification of the divorce process, the Church continues with its traditional process, wherein it acts as “protector of holy matrimony”. Although ecclesiastical divorce is no longer a legal act, it has been transformed into a “spiritual dissolution” of the marital bond, which is issued only after counseling performed by a local cleric.
The Church is involved in several international initiatives. These include the World Council of Churches (WCC), the Middle Eastern Council of Churches (MECC) and the Conference of European Churches (CEC). In the context of these bodies’ meetings, the religious diversity of Cyprus is seen as a model for European pluralism. Since the Republic of Cyprus’ 2004 EU ascension, and certainly since Archbishop Chrysostomos II’s 2006 ascend, the Church’s leadership has further attempted to upgrade and improve Cyprus’ presence and participation in the EU. The Church set up a special department for inter-Church relations and European issues in Cyprus and it also established its own institutional representation in Brussels.
Post-1974 modernization does not seem to have resulted in an increase in secular attitudes among the public. According to the results of the 2008 wave of the European Values Study (EVS), the overwhelming majority of people consider the religious rituals for baptism, marriage and death to be quite important. These rituals are routinely conducted for the majority of the people. According to the same survey a reported 55.6 % of the respondents attended services at least once a month. These results largely corroborate data from the International Social Survey Program (1998, 2009). The general image is that the respondents hold steadfast to traditional religious beliefs, with secularization tendencies present but rather limited in their impact. It is indicative that in the 2008 EVS survey, 91.1 % of the respondents said that they are religious persons and 95.8 % said that they believe in God.
Since 2012, after the Republic of Cyprus became clearly affected by the sovereign debt crisis, the Church undertook a wide range of charitable actions, and has been quite active in the post-crisis years. Many actions take place in private or indirectly, in order to maintain anonymity of aid recipients. The Archbishopric of Cyprus operated the first community market, intended for families who were finding it difficult to afford basic human necessities. Food (beans, spaghetti, long lasting milk, flour, rice, cereals, etc.) and hygiene supplies were given to low income families on a monthly basis. The impact of the Church in society has been further enhanced by the personalized way it supports the needy families. Currently, there are 52 markets operating in Cyprus, of which 12 are controlled by the Church’s bishoprics and monasteries in cooperation with local municipalities. Enterprises, organizations and individuals are also contributing to the charitable work of the Church, either by funding or with donations. By late 2014, it was estimated that up to 10,000 people receive food from the Church on a daily basis. The Church of Cyprus also supports the initiative of the Ministry of Education, ensuring breakfast (sandwiches and juice) to 13,000 pupils from destitute families across the Republic of Cyprus for the academic year 2014-15.
It is fair to say that the Church’s multiple and multifaceted activities render it one of the most important power brokers in local society. While it is completely separate from the State, the scope and breath of the Church’s social, cultural and economic activities is impressive. This situation is quite unusual, as in most other Orthodox countries the local Churches are directly or indirectly controlled by the State. While institutionally the Republic of Cyprus is quite a secular State, research results indicate that the extent of secularization in local society is rather low – at least by Western European standards.
Victor Roudometof (University of Cyprus).