EARLY CHRISTIANITY IN CYPRUS
Cyprus once played a most distinguished part in the annals of faith. It was one of the first gentile lands to receive the Gospel of Faith. Its inhabitants were some of the earliest to proclaim “the good tidings of great joy”, for we read that among the first missionaries to Antioch were men of Cyprus. But what renders the island doubly interesting to Christians is that it was the scene of one of the most striking of the many triumphs, which the Great Apostle of the Gentiles gained in the cause of Christ. A native chronicler, himself a Latin, when recounting the exploits of Barnabas in Antioch, thus exultingly sums up the services, which Cyprus has rendered to Christianity. “Under what an obligation should the City of Antioch, be towards the Cypriots! Under what debt, too, are Christian people who are being called Christian thanks to Cypriots. But what shall we say of thee, oh Holy Rome? Whence has thou received beginning of our holiness but from Barnabas! Behold, then, how Cyprus is a true friend of Christ, and in a truest sense a part of the Holy Land, since it was the first cause that Rome was consecrated head of the world.”
The most important event in its religious history, of which we have definite knowledge, is the arrival of the two Apostles, (45 AD). Though the names of Paul and Barnabas must ever stand foremost in the ecclesiastical annals of the island, they were not the earliest pioneers of Christianity to reach its shores. St Luke informs us that in the persecution which succeeded the death of Stephen, some of the fugitive disciples carried the knowledge of the Gospel as far as Cyprus. But their preaching was confined entirely to the Jews. The message of Salvation was proclaimed without distinction of race or creed only with the coming of the Apostles.
The motive which led Paul and his companions to choose this island as the scene of their first missionary enterprise is very obvious. Not only was Barnabas a native of Salamis on its Eastern coast, but it contained at this period a large Jewish population.
In 50 AD Barnabas returned to Cyprus with his “infamous” cousin Apostle and Evangelist John-Mark, and using Salamis as his headquarters, he supervised the spread of Christianity in almost all the cities and communities of Cyprus. Barnabas, who is also considered the first Archbishop of Cyprus, was stoned by the Jews and died in 57 AD just outside Salamis, where his tomb is preserved. Thus he became one of the first witnesses of Christ.
The account of their journey, at least as far as Cyrus is concerned, is recorded very briefly in the Acts. The writer merely states that the Apostles, after landing at Salamis, crossed to the island to Paphos where they converted the representative of the Roman government. According to local tradition, Paul had, previous to this event, received from the Jews of this town the customary forty save one blows of the whip. A column of white stone about seven feet high is still pointed to travelers as the one to which he was tied for the occasion. The conversion of such an influential person as Sergius Paulus could not fail to have a most favourable effect upon the success of their mission.
One writer, asserts that the Gentile Christians of the island, even after their conversion continued to call themselves Greeks, a name elsewhere regarded as equivalent to idolater.
Alexander, a Cypriot monk, in his encomium of Barnabas asserts that the Apostles founded churches in many parts of Cyprus. In an apocryphal work of the fifth century, generally ascribed to Mark, it is stated that at Kition they met with one Herakleon, whose name Paul changed to Herakleides. Him they consecrated first Bishop of the island and placed in charge of the congregation, whose place of meeting was in a cave near the city of Tamasos.
In the year 115 AD occurred one of the most terrible events in the island’s history, which for a time threatened the very existence of the church. The Jews broke into rebellion throughout the Roman empire. Insurrections took place in Cyrenaica, Egypt and Mesopotamia. The numerous Jews living in Cyprus did not long remain mere passive spectators in the rebellion. Under the leadership of Artemion they flew to arms and committed incredible atrocities, massacring 240,000 of their fellow citizens and reducing the flourishing town of Salamis to ruins. This rebellion was only suppressed after a severe struggle. Thousands of the insurgents perished in the rising and the survivors were banished from the island. The banishment of its most determined foes was the one thing needed to ensure the advancement of Christianity. On their departure it spread with much greater rapidity than it had ever done before. New teachers came from Syria to replace those who had lost their lives in the late troubles. These, with the numerous hermits and recluses who begun to flock thither from all parts, helped to confirm the faith of the native Christians.
That the Christians of Cyprus did not escape the persecutions which their brethren in other parts of the Roman empire had to endure, is shown by the long list of martyrs and confessors, whose names the island Church still holds precious.
The first and most famous of the Councils, that of Nicea (AD 325), was attended by representatives from Cyprus as well as from other parts of the Christian world. The existing lists of signers are admittedly very defective which may account for the names of only two Cypriot Bishops being recorded, Kyrillos of Paphos and of Gelasios of Salamis. From other sources we know that a third, the famous miracle worker, Spyridon of Trimithus was present.
In the fourth century AD we know that Cyprus was visited by a drought of unusual severity. The earlier chroniclers represent it as lasting for thirty-six years. One of them even hints that it was sent in retribution for the martyrdom of St Catharine.
St Catherine was a royal princess, the daughter of King Constant of Cyprus, born around 287AD, living in the old city of Constantia neat Salamis, in the Famagusta area. The Roman emperor at the time was Diocletian, who was known for his cruel persecution of Christians. When Constant was transferred to Alexandria to rule over Egypt, his brother became administrator of Cyprus. King Constant died soon after his arrival in Alexandria, and his daughter was sent back to her uncle in Cyprus. When her uncle learned that she had become a Christian, he tried to convert her back to the pagan religion. Catherine was unyielding, and proclaimed her faith with such determination, that her uncle was forced to take harsh measures against her. Fearing that the emperor would put him to death for protecting her, the uncle imprisoned her first at Salamis, then at Paphos, before sending her to Alexandria.
The ruler of Alexandria at the time was Maxentius, son of the emperor Diocletian, and he was as ruthless as his father. He also tried to get her to change her faith, without success, torturing her and throwing her into prison. He asked 50 philosophers and orators to convince Catherine to return to the religion of her fathers. She countered their arguments to such an extent that she converted them to Christianity. This infuriated Maxentius, who ordered that the philosophers be burned at the stake. It is also said that when Maxentius was away from Alexandria, his queen, followed by 200 officers and men visited Catherine in prison to convince her to relent. the soldiers were so impressed by Catherine’s convincing defence that they were converted to Christianity and baptised. When Maxentius heard of this, he had them all beheaded. He finally ordered that Catherine should be severely beaten and tied to a rolling spiked wheel. Although she survived this torture, she was beheaded in 307.
It was in the midst of all this all-pervading misery that there appeared on the scene a woman, whose name the whole of the church of Cyprus held in great reverence. The mother of the first Christian Emperor, St Helena, returning to Constantinople after her successful quest for the true cross in Jerusalem (327 AD), passed through the island. Carrying with her to the shore some of the treasures she so miraculously acquired in the Holy Land, she made her way to the monastery of St. George near the river Tetios, which in honour of her visit, has since received the name Vasilopotamos, or Royal River. The presence of these relics soon became apparent in the island. The wrath of Heaven was at length appeased and the long withheld rain descended. While continuing her journey to Constantinople, Helena is said to have shown yet further proof of her regard for Cyprus by throwing one of the nails of the true cross into the Gulf of Satalia. These waters, which had previously borne a very bad reputation for storms, became in consequence less formidable to sailors. The visit of this saintly woman seems certainly to have brought with it an era of prosperity for the sorely tried island. The numbers, too, of those who confessed the faith of Christ kept increasing daily.
The second great danger, which the Cypriot church had to face, was an attack upon its independence by a neighboring Christian community. The subject, unquestionably one of the most difficult in its history, is shrouded in much obscurity. Among the prerogatives of the Patriarchs of Antioch was the right of consecrating their subject Metropolitans. For years before the issue came to a crisis they tried to extend the practice to Cyprus also. The island was at that time included in the Diocese of the East and administered by an official sent from Antioch. It was this circumstance which prompted the demand of the Patriarchs for its ecclesiastical subjection to Antioch also.
By the close of the fourth century, Christianity may be regarded as firmly established in the island. Its final supremacy, however, was mainly due to the great Epiphanios, Archbishop of Constantia.
Epiphanios, one of the most remarkable ecclesiastical personages of the age in which he lived, deserves more than a mere passing note. Hardly a religious event of any importance occurred during the period of his long life, in which he did not play a conspicuous part.
During the reign of Constantine, the Great (306-337 AD), The Empire was divided for the sake of administration into thirteen dioceses. The first of these, called the East, with its capital at Antioch, was divided into fifteen provinces (eparchies), of which Cyprus formed one. The island, by this arrangement, lost its political autonomy, which it had enjoyed since the time of Augustus, but no alteration in its ecclesiastical status took place.
This was not openly disputed until the reign of Emperor Zenon, (474-491 AD), when the Monophysite, Peter the Fuller, occupied the Patriarchal throne. He asserted his title on supremacy, not on ancient rights, but on the plea that, as Cyprus had originally received the faith from Antioch, which was an apostolic foundation, it ought, therefore, to be subject to that See. There is little doubt that the attack against the liberties of the island Church would this time have succeeded, but for the opportune intervention of its patron Saint. The Apostle Barnabas, suddenly appearing in a vision to the Archbishop Anthemios, urged him to lay his case in person before the Emperor at Constantinople, and at the same time revealed the place of his sepulture. On the morrow, accompanied by his clergy and a great concourse of people, Anthemios went in procession to the place, which had been so miraculously indicated. They soon came upon a cave, in which they found a chest containing the remains of the Saint with a copy of St Mathew’s Gospel in Barnabas’ own handwriting upon the breast, where it had been placed by Mark.
The most skeptical could no longer doubt that the Church of Cyprus was equally as apostolic as that of Antioch, and, therefore, of equal rank. The emperor Zeno, to match his sense of the importance attaching to the discovery, conferred upon the Cypriot primates certain privileges, which they have most jealously guarded ever since. Among others they received the right of signing in red ink, a mark of distinction otherwise only enjoyed by Emperors, wearing a purple cloak at the festivals of the Church, and carrying an imperial scepter in place of the ordinary pastoral staff. By the Emperor’s commands Anthemios upon his return to Cyprus constructed on the spot where the body was found a magnificent church furnished with cells for monks, and with chambers for those pilgrims, as might be attracted thither by the sanctity of the place.