Pope Francis will visit Cyprus and Greece from December 2-6. He will spend the first two days of his visit in Nicosia, the Cypriot capital, and then travel to Greece on December 4 to visit Athens and Lesbos until December 6. The following is an overview of the country’s ancient Catholic community and the country’s religious and cultural background.
By Lisa Zengarini
Cyprus has close historical, cultural and religious ties with Greece which date back to ancient times. In addition to ethnicity, Greek Cypriots and Greeks share a common heritage, language and religion, although over the centuries Cyprus has had more contact with the Middle East, due to its geographical position. and the presence of large ethnic minorities in this region. Indeed, Cyprus is seen as a bridge between East and West.
An old church
Christianity in both countries has its roots in the apostolic era, namely with the apostle Paul who preached in Greece, but also evangelized Cyprus with the apostle Barnabas, who is considered to be the founder of the Cypriot Church. . Moreover, both countries are of Orthodox tradition, with the Orthodox constituting an overwhelming majority, although the Autocephalous Church of Cyprus does not enjoy the privileged legal status of the Greek Church.
The Latin Rite Church
Cypriot Catholics currently represent 4.75% of the population (38,000) and are mostly of the Latin rite. Many of them find their roots in the Crusaders who settled there at the end of the 12th century, after their victory over Saladin and the fall of Jerusalem during the Third Crusade (1191).
Latin Catholics flourished until Cyprus was conquered by the Turks in 1570-1573, when thousands were killed, churches converted to mosques, and the Latin Church was dissolved. However, they survived Ottoman rule largely thanks to the Franciscan Order, which has been present on the island since its founding in the 13th century and still plays a central role in the local Church today.
The policy of tolerance under subsequent British rule (1878-1960) strengthened the Latin community allowing its full integration into Cypriot society. The process of emancipation has progressed further since independence in 1960, when the new Constitution officially recognized the Catholic Church and, at the political level, reserved a seat in Parliament for each of the three Catholic communities present on the island.
Despite the Turkish invasion of 1974, which forced many Catholic families to flee the North, the Latin Catholic community in Cyprus continued to thrive, actively contributing to the country’s development, especially in the field of education. The Latin community is also very active in the social field, through charitable organizations helping the poor and the most vulnerable, refugees and foreign workers.
The Latin Cypriot Church is under the jurisdiction of the Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem and is entrusted to a Latin Patriarchal Vicar, currently Father Jerzy Kraj, OFM. The Patriarchate manages the parish of Saint Paul of Paphos, while the three remaining parishes are administered by the Franciscan Order.
The second largest Catholic community in Cyprus are the Maronites, who currently represent 1.5% of the population. The Maronites arrived in successive waves from the 8th century onwards and flourished under Latin rule, becoming the largest Eastern Christian community after the local Greek community. The numbers dropped dramatically after the Ottomans took power in the 16th century and the persecutions that followed. They began to grow again under British rule and after independence, with many Lebanese arriving after the outbreak of war in Lebanon in 1975.
Following the partition of Cyprus in 1974, however, the number of Maronites was considerably reduced in the north. In total, Maronite Catholics numbered some 13,000 in 2019. They are mostly concentrated in Nicosia and under the jurisdiction of the Archparchy of Cyprus, currently ruled by Archbishop Selim John Sfeir.
In terms of cultural specificity, the Maronites of Cyprus are native Greek speakers. At present, however, they also speak different languages, as they have done throughout their history, including Syriac, Arabic, French, and Italian.
The smallest Cypriot Catholic community is the Catholic-Armenian community. Its presence dates back to the 6th century when Armenian prisoners of war were transferred to the island. More Christian Armenians, mainly belonging to the Armenian Orthodox Apostolic Church, came in the following centuries, especially in the 13th century. Armenian Catholics also benefited from British rule. More Armenians arrived in Cyprus during the massacres perpetrated by the Turks during World War I, the partition of Palestine in 1948 and the war in Lebanon (1975-1990). Some 3-4,000 people now live in Cyprus and most of them live in the capital Nicosia.
Good ecumenical relations
The main Christian churches in Cyprus, including Protestants and Anglicans, work closely together and maintain good ecumenical relations. Over the past 15 years, the Holy See and the majority Orthodox Church have strengthened their fraternal relations, which have been actively supported by His Beatitude Chrysostom II, Archbishop of New Giustiniana and All Cyprus.
On June 16, 2007, the Orthodox primate signed a joint declaration with Benedict XVI on the occasion of his visit to the Vatican. Pope Benedict XVI then met His Holiness Chrysostom II on two other occasions: on June 5, 2010, during his apostolic trip to Cyprus, when he handed over to the Orthodox primate a copy of the Instrumentum laboris (working document) of the Special Synod of Bishops for the Eastern Middle East held in October of the same year and on March 28, 2011, again in the Vatican.