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Christians in the Muslim World

In the Heart of the Mediterranean the Island of wounded Beauty

A very ancient and glorious form of Christianity, a people whom many rulers have tried to change, the hope of the reunification of a land which for thirty years has been broken in two, a tenacious wish to retrieve a historical and cultural inheritance that is in ruins, and an irreplaceable role as bridge to the Middle East. In the words of Archbishop Chrysostomos II, the story of Cyprus, which asks for help from Europe and offers help to Europe.  

Not fifteen years had passed since the death of Jesus when Paul (who at that time was still Saul) and Barnabas landed at Pafos on the Cyprus coast, at what was the capital of a province of the Roman Empire. Tradition has it that this was in the year 46 AD. The Acts of the Apostles testify to the fact that it was specifically on this island that Paul decided to adopt his new name, but Barnabas is seen as the founder of Cypriot Christianity, something established during a second and longer missionary visit that was carried out with the Evangelist Mark. Thus began the history of one of the most ancient Churches, which today is still well aware of its honours and its responsibilities. Cypriot bishops took part in the Council of Nyssa and the community became self-governing in 431. The Byzantine period was interrupted by the French in 1191. They dominated the island for almost three centuries, only to give way to the Venetians who, in their turn, succumbed to the Turks. The period of Ottoman rule ended in 1878 with a form of Christianity left to the island that was solidly led by the Archbishop who during the period of Turkish rule adopted the title ‘Ethnarch’, something that greatly increased the importance of his role. This title also had a political character, that of being the unique authority of this Christian people in its relationship with the Ottoman rulers. When the Archbishop of Cyprus is elected the people as the faithful also take part in his election and this is a unique tradition within Orthodoxy. Chrysostomos II was chosen in November 2006 following a procedure that had three stages: first, the election of 1,400 representatives of the people, from whom were then chosen a hundred delegates, who, together with thirty-four representatives of the clergy, then elected the new Archbishop. Chrysostomos was born in the area of Pafos and was later Metropolitan of the same city, where, indeed, the history of Christianity on the island began.

 

 

 

Your Beatitude, I would like to ask you first of all for a description of the ways things are now as regards the Church of Cyprus.

 

 

Our people is a very faithful and respectful. It experiences the Church as a mother, it loves her and finds in her listening and a refuge. We are a small land where the bishops and priests are very near to the people, they know their needs. The help that we give is both spiritual and material and this special character of our identity explains the attachment of the people to the Church. Certainly, all this is very different from what takes place in the rest of Europe.

 

 

Do you not fear a cultural influence from Europe that will be marked by agnosticism?

 

 

This will perhaps happen in a hundred years’ time. Today I do not see signs of distrust or abandonment. Not only marriages and baptisms, but daily life, too, are closely connected with the Church. If I look at my days, two-thirds of them are devoted to receiving the faithful. My door is always open and I can say the same about my brothers. There are no pauses in the intensity and continuity of our relationships with the faithful. They ask for advice, they ask for direction, they ask for help. And for that matter the Church is also listened to by the authorities, it can intercede, it can ‘intervene’ to look for solutions. I do not see space where external influences can take root.

 

 

How do you see the future of this Church of yours?

 

 

We work a great deal to ensure that it is always united and near to the people. For this reason we have practically doubled the number of bishops. I have asked them for a great readiness to help, the greatest openness. No bishop should remain shut up in his office. He should go out, live in the places where people live, being always ready to speak, to listen, to address daily matters as well as questions of the spirit, culture, morality. The future is born in this way, it is a development of our present role.

 

 

Yours is a very ancient and glorious history: recently, with Cyprus joining the European Union, this great tradition has been experiencing direct contact with a ‘new’ world, in a certain sense you are a little less an island…

 

 

First of all I want to say something not about what we can receive but about what we can give, which is certainly not technology or natural resources. We have our way of life to offer. This respect for the Church, our Orthodoxy, this way of living tradition, Christian principles. This ‘way’ we are, which we want to export to Europe as well, will be our participation in Europe.

 

 

Cyprus is in a very special geographical situation, very near to Turkey, very near to the Middle East, but with a cultural history that is linked to Europe. How do you see the geographical position of this island, but above all its history?

 

 

Our history shows that this people for many centuries was under foreign rulers; many tried to subject it, to change its soul. It is the Church that has protected this people, We have made ourselves a shield for the people, defending its faith and its culture, its ‘Greekness’. The priests have fought against illiteracy, they have taught the language and the texts, they have kept its Christian and Greek roots solid. Thus we have remained true to ourselves. Just think, all these rulers, from the Latins to the Turks, who have tried to subject us... We have existed for two thousand years and for two thousand years we have been with the people and we will never stop doing this.

 

 

Today do you look more to Europe or to the Middle East? Does your very special tradition make you feel ‘different’, with a new risk of being alone?

 

 

We do not in the least feel isolated. We have very good relations with all the countries of the Middle East: the Lebanon, Syria, Israel, Jordan, Egypt…Ours is a tradition of openness and as a Church, as well, we have excellent relations with the religious leaders of these countries. My belief is that when Cyprus joined the European Union, Europe came to the Middle East. Now it is the whole of Europe, through us, which is next to these countries. Here there is also our role, our special task.

 

 

I am struck by your statement that Europe ‘came here’. This is a surprising and interesting way of looking at Brussels, Paris, Rome…

 

 

It does not seem to me that Europe has understood our function, the value of our presence in this world. But this is our problem, we have not yet been able to explain it and enable it to be seen. For this reason, as well, we have opened an office in Brussels, to intensify our contacts with the Commission and the European Parliament. We need to make our ‘mission’, which is useful to the whole of Europe, understood, we need to turn over a new page.

 

 

How do you see the situation of Christian minorities in countries with Muslim majorities?

 

 

It is a tragic situation. As Europeans we must act, we must try by any means to find ways of putting pressure on the governments and the religious leaders of these countries to stop action that injures Christians. We must ask them to respect Christians as we respect Muslims. This was one of the subjects of the visits that I have already made to Syria and Egypt and which I will continue to make throughout the region.

 

 

There is a great deal of discussion in the Christian world about the real possibility of an understanding as regards the relationship with Islam…

 

 

Difficulties exist and will exist but we should not be afraid. Dialogue will bring love, it will bring respect. Enmity does not lead to solutions and indeed one of the purposes of dialogue is to marginalise the extremists. There are encouraging signs, not least because in many societies Christians and Muslims live together peacefully. In Cairo many Muslims attend the ancient monastery of St. George, bringing offerings and praying to the saint; and the same happens here in Cyprus. And let us think of the Lebanon, Syria and Jordan: there is freedom and nobody is calling it into question. It is the opposite that is abnormal. It is true that in other countries there are grave difficulties but I think that in Saudi Arabia, as well, things can change. At the meeting in Naples organised by the Community of Sant’Egidio, last autumn, the representatives of these countries also expressed the same aspiration for mutual knowledge and respect, for co-existence based on love. We need to start from there. We will need time and patience; the important thing is for the beginning to be clear and sincere.

 

 

I visited the northern part of Cyprus, the occupied zone. Looking at the dilapidated churches and the devastated cemeteries, entering that land which is ‘desolate’ in Christian terms, I had the very sad sensation of a future that could be that of everyone, northern Cyprus as a premonition: what will the world be without Christianity, where the history of Christianity will be reduced to a heap of ruins… ?

 

 

Before our history was broken by the invasion of 1974, Christians and Muslims lived in harmony: people went to each other’s festivities, at Ramadan the Christians went, at Easter the Turks came. Marriages, baptisms, religious feasts, these bore witness to mutual friendship. As a boy in my village I had many Turkish friends. At a certain point the tensions began. There were clashes between the two communities. The head of the Turkish-Cypriot community, Rauf Denkats, decided it was necessary to live in a separate way: a foolish, chauvinist policy that wanted to break our tradition of co-existence. And this took place. Today we have a third of our island occupied, an invasion corps of forty thousand Turkish troops, 180,000 Turkish settlers from Anatolia, the old Turkish-Cypriot community in decline, with a half of it having emigrated, demonstrating that they, too, cannot bear this situation, and that it is not true that they have to be protected. Lastly, the order to eliminate Christianity: people forced to flee, buildings destroyed or abandoned to themselves. In a few years this plan will have been completely implemented. We go on beseeching them to be able to save what can still be saved of this heritage, recovering buildings and engaging in restoration work, everything paid for by us: they should allow us to do this, they should give us the permission! But they do not even answer, or they say that the churches are falling into ruin because there are no longer any Christians... This is a dramatic and very grave injustice, performed amidst international indifference. For that matter today the Turkish authorities state that there are two peoples on Cyprus, two religions, two republics. But I am certain that if one removed the demarcation line, if the military men and settlers left, everything would return to what it was before. Here in Cyprus we are one reality.

 

 

So you do not believe that there is a religious problem…?

 

 

We have never had religious problems, nor we will ever have religious problems. The question is merely nationalistic, nothing else. I wonder why Europe does not realise thus, why it does not take decisive steps. Here we waited for a long time for Europe to come; now our hopes seem betrayed.

 

 

Can we say that there is a connection between the situation in Cyprus and the situation of Christian minorities in the Middle Eastern region, even though there important differences as regards nationalism, culture, historical events…

 

 

In all my meetings with European leaders I have emphasised the situation of Christians, a situation which here we feel in all its urgent and dramatic character. I used the word ‘test’ in relation to Cyprus. I emphasise this word again because we want to live together and in peace and they should help us to do this, to end the separation, the foreign invasion. We are a natural bridge in this part of the world, we have good relations and we are able to develop them with everybody; this is our historic vocation.

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