CYPRUS - On Friday, November 5, 2021, The Holy See Press Office officially announced that His Holiness Pope Francis will visit Nicosia, the capital of Cyprus, from 2-4 December. The visit is expected to focus on migrants, Catholic-Orthodox relations and promoting peace in the region.
Religious diversity in Cyprus
Due to its location to the south of Turkey and the southeast of Greece, Cyprus is characterized by its diversity of religions and sects that have learned to live together over time following years of conflict. These groups work together for the good of the Cypriot community, as well as to help the migrants in Cyprus who have been living in dire circumstances for years.
According to the Migrants & Refugees Section, a small action-oriented Vatican office, 80% of the population of Cyprus is Christian-Orthodox, while 18% is Muslim. The remaining 2% is made up of Latins, Maronite Catholics, Armenian, Protestants, Buddhists and Hindus, with small populations of Jews, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and Baha’is.
In order to regulate relations and ensure equal rights for followers of all religions and sects, the 1960 Constitution of Cyprus recognized the three religious groups: Maronite Catholics (whose ancestors migrated from present-day Lebanon during the Middle Ages), Greek Orthodox and Latins, exempting them from taxes, allowing them to have a representative in the House of Representatives, and making them eligible for government subsidies for their religious institutions.
The Latins of Cyprus
Despite being a minority, the Latins in Cyprus have contributed to the economic, cultural and social development of the country. They have a rich history that can be traced back to 1192, with the arrival of a wave of Catholic migrants from Europe and the Levant, hosted by King Frank of Jerusalem. In 1196, a Latin Archbishop took office in Nicosia, the current Cypriot capital, accompanied by three bishops who settled in the cities of Famagusta, Limassol and Paphos. This led to the arrival of many Roman Catholic orders who settled on the island, throughout the Frankish and Venetian periods (1192-1489 and 1489-1570). During this interval, the Latins of Cyprus represented 15-20% of the population and exercised an important influence as a ruling nobility.
Although the Ottomans took control of Cyprus in 1570, they failed to completely eliminate the Latin presence due to the presence of Franciscan institutions (particularly schools) and monasteries, as well as European Consulates and diplomatic presences in the region.
Today, the four Catholic parishes of Cyprus; the Holy Cross parish in Nicosia, the St. Mary of Graces in Larnaca, the St. Catherine parish in Larnaca, and the St. Paul parish in Paphos, fall under the authority of the Diocese of Jerusalem, with a Latin Patriarchal Vicar in Nicosia, currently held by Fr. Jerzy Kraj. The Patriarchate manages the Saint-Paul parish of Paphos, while the Franciscans administer the other three. The Vicar is supported by priests officiating in the capital, in Limassol, in Larnaca and in Paphos.
There are only two Latin schools today that operate in Cyprus but which also serve students of other faiths: the Terra Santa College in Nicosia, founded and managed by the Franciscans, and the school of Saint-Mary in Limassol, which was originally founded by Franciscan Sisters of the Sacred Heart as a girl’s college.
In addition, there is the Social Center of St. Joseph for migrants in Nicosia, which is run by the Franciscan Sisters of the Sacred Heart, the St. Francis' refuge in Limassol, which offers healthcare to the poor and organizes recreation activities, as well as the Terra Santa Rest House, which is a retirement home for elderly women run by the Franciscan Sisters of the Sacred Heart in Larnaca.
Pope Benedict’s visit in 2010
Following the example of Saints Paul and Barnabas, the two missionaries who visited Cyprus to preach the word of God, the Latins and Orthodox of Cyprus live and cooperate together to serve the Christian and non-Christian communities in Cyprus, despite the long history of political and religious conflicts.
In June 2010, His Holiness Pope Benedict XVI paid an official three-day visit to Cyprus. During his visit, he met with the Latin, Greek Orthodox and Maronite communities. Pope Benedict XVI’s meeting with His Beatitude Chrysostomos II, Archbishop of Cyprus, was the latest of an increasing volume of contacts which date back to 1964, when Pope Paul VI met with H.B Patriarch Athenagoras, Patriarch of Constantinople.
During his meeting with His Beatitude Chrysostomos II, Archbishop of Cyprus, Pope Benedict XVI prayed “that all the inhabitants of Cyprus, with God’s help, will find the wisdom and strength needed to work together for a just settlement of issues remaining to be resolved, to strive for peace and reconciliation, and to build for future generations a society distinguished by respect for the rights of all”.
Pope Benedict XVI also visited the Cathedral of the Maronite Church of Cyprus and met with H.B Archbishop Youssef Soueif, Archbishop of the Maronite Catholic Archeparchy of Cyprus. During his visit, he spoke about the first Maronite communities who came to Cyprus at various times throughout the centuries, saying: “in spite of their faith being tested like gold in a fire (cf. 1 Pet 1:7), they remained constant in the faith of their fathers, a faith which has now been passed on to you, the Maronite Cypriots of today. I urge you to treasure this great inheritance, this precious gift”.
Migrants and asylum-seekers in Cyprus
According to the Migrants & Refugees Section, in 2017, Cyprus was the second European country in terms of immigration rate, whereas In 2019, it was the country with the highest number of asylum seekers in relation to its population, with most coming from Syria, Georgia, India, Bangladesh, Pakistan and Cameroon.
Today, Cyprus is the European country that hosts the largest number of refugees, constituting about 4% of the total population. Numbers are constantly increasing, with a 50% increase in the migratory flow in 2017 compared to 2016, and 69% in 2018.
Together, and with the Muslims of Cyprus, the churches of Cyprus cooperate in order to help migrants and asylum-seekers, and provide them with various services through their various centers and institutions.
In 2018 for instance, on the occasion of World Refugee Day, the Religious Leaders of Cyprus released a joint video statement in support of refugees and asylum-seekers, advocating for understanding, support, protection and inclusion.
H.B Archbishop Chrysostomos II, Archbishop of Nova Justiniana and All Cyprus, H.E Dr. Talip Atalay, Mufti of Cyprus, H.E Archbishop Khoren Doghramadjian of the Armenian Apostolic Orthodox Church of Cyprus, H.E Archbishop Youssef Soueif of the Maronite Church of Cyprus, and Fr. Jerzy Kraj, Latin Patriarchal Vicar and Representative of the Apostolic Nunciature in Cyprus, sent a global message to devote particular attention to refugees who are forced to flee their homeland in search of a better life, by integrating them into the society they live in and encouraging them to bring positive contributions.
They added that “we must help them restore their dignity as human beings and enable them to adapt to life in a strange land”. The religious leaders called on individuals, and religious, civil and political institutions to help integrate refugees into their new societies. They concluded by stating that refugees are “our brothers and sisters in search of a better life far away from war, poverty and hunger”.
On Thursday, November 11, during a conference held at the Vatican and promoted by the “Migrantes Foundation”, H.H. Pope Francis said that “immigrants, if they are helped to integrate, are a blessing, a source of enrichment and a new gift that encourages society to grow”.
On November 13, The Holy See Press Office released the itinerary for Pope Francis’ journey to Cyprus, which will include a meeting with priests and Religious Men at the Maronite Cathedral of Our Lady of Grace in Nicosia, a visit to H.B Chrysostomos II, and a meeting with the Holy Synod. Pope Francis will also preside over a Holy Mass at the “GSP Stadium”, and an ecumenical prayer with migrants at the parish church of the Holy Cross, both in Nicosia, on December 3.
On Saturday, December 4, the Pope is expected to leave Cyprus for Greece.