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The Orthodox Church of Cyprus

The church of Cyprus traces its origins back to apostolic times, the island having been evangelized by Sts. Paul and Barnabas according to the Book of Acts (13:4-13). Because the island was administered as part of the civil province of the East, whose capital was Antioch, the Patriarchs of Antioch for a time claimed jurisdiction over the Cypriot church and the right to appoint its Archbishop. But the Council of Ephesus in 431 recognized the church’s independence and directed that the Archbishops of Cyprus should be elected by the synod of Cypriot bishops.

From the mid-7th century to the mid-10th century, there were frequent Arab attacks against Cyprus that often wrought widespread devastation. Because of this Arab threat, Byzantine Emperor Justinian II evacuated the Christian population of the island from 688 to 695 and settled many of them in a new city on the Dardanelles called Nea Justiniana. The Archbishop of Cyprus took up residence there and was given the additional title of Archbishop of Nea Justiniana, an honor that he retains to this day. The decisive victory of Byzantine Emperor Nicephorus II Phocas (963-969) over the Arabs inaugurated a period of peace during which churches and monasteries were rebuilt and the church flourished. In the 11th and 12th centuries, however, there was growing resentment against the oppressive rule of successive Byzantine governors who often used Cyprus as a basis for rebellion against the Emperors in Constantinople.

In 1191 the island was conquered by King Richard the Lionhearted of England, who had come to the area on a crusade. A few months later, Richard sold the island to the Knights Templar, who then sold it in 1192 to the Frenchman Guy de Lusignan, the exiled King of the Crusader state of Jerusalem. He established a western feudal society in Cyprus and a dynasty that would last nearly 300 years. A Latin hierarchy was soon erected, to the detriment of the Orthodox. By 1260 the Orthodox monasteries had been made subject to the Latin bishops, the number of Orthodox bishops on the island had been reduced from 15 to four, and all of them had been placed under the authority of the new Latin Archbishop of Cyprus. Several western monastic orders founded houses on the island, often benefiting from the confiscation of Orthodox ecclesiastical property. This situation changed little with the conquest of Cyprus by Venice in 1489.

In 1571 the island fell to the Ottoman Turks. The Turks ended the feudal social system, banished the Latin hierarchy, and recognized the Orthodox. Although the Orthodox were allowed to resume electing their own Archbishop, they retained only the four dioceses the Latins had allowed them. As was true elsewhere in the Ottoman Empire, the Orthodox bishops became civil as well as spiritual leaders of their own Greek people. Thus when the Greek revolution broke out in 1821, the bishops were considered sympathetic to the Greek cause. In the same year, all the bishops and many other prominent churchmen were summoned to the governor’s palace and murdered by the guards. Later a new hierarchy was sent to the island by the Patriarchate of Antioch. These bishops were able to improve the situation of the Greek community somewhat, but it still suffered under very heavy taxation.

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