Election of Cypriot Church head: why is it important not just for Cypriots?

29 November 2022 17:44
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Metropolitan Athanasios is considered the main contender for the post of Primate of the Church of Cyprus. Photo: UOJ Metropolitan Athanasios is considered the main contender for the post of Primate of the Church of Cyprus. Photo: UOJ

In December, the Orthodox world will know the name of the new Primate of the Church of Cyprus. How will the elections be held, and what will they mean for the UOC?

On December 18, 2022, the elections of a new Primate of the Orthodox Church of Cyprus will take place. Six candidates have announced their participation in the upcoming elections, but only four of them can be seriously considered: Metropolitan Athanasios of Limassol, Metropolitan George of Paphos, Metropolitan Neophytos of Morphou and Metropolitan Isaiah of Tamassos. From these candidates, Cypriots will have to choose the head of their Church. For us, Ukrainians, this question would not be of much interest, if not for one thing – recognition of the OCU's Tomos by most of the Cypriot Church.

Recognition of OCU's Tomos and the schism in the Church of Cyprus

Recall that for some time the late Archbishop Chrysostomos of Cyprus tried to maintain the neutrality of his Church towards the legalization of the OCU by the Phanar. Moreover, he even tried to mediate a solution acceptable to the conflicting parties – the Constantinople and Moscow Patriarchates. However, Archbishop Chrysostomos soon visited the Phanar and radically changed his position. In 2020, he pushed through a decision according to which part of the synodal bishops voted in favour of his commemoration of Epifaniy Dumenko. The decision of the Synod of the Church of Cyprus was scandalous as it was passed by a margin of only two votes and led to almost half of the Cypriot episcopate going into stiff opposition to the Primate.

Among the hierarchs who categorically opposed the decision to recognise the OCU, four, in particular, stood out – Metropolitan Isaiah of Tamassos, Met. Nikephoros of Kykkos, Athanasios of Limassol and Metropolitan Neophytos of Morphou. The first three bishops not only called for a withdrawal of the decision to commemorate Dumenko but also officially refused to take part in those services where his name was mentioned. For four years, all four bishops have consistently said that the decision by the Phanar to grant the Tomos to the OCU was neither canonical nor justified. Their position largely determined the position of other Local Churches, which saw in Cyprus not only hierarchs advocating for canons but also witnessed a de facto split within the Church, which recognised Dumenko. Cyprus was a very telling example that the legalisation of the OCU would do nothing good for the Church. And now three of the aforementioned hierarchs are candidates for the position of Primate of the Church of Cyprus (except for Met. Nikephoros of Kykkos). It is clear that a great deal depends on their personal position.

The new Primate and the OCU

Why does so much depend on the position of the new head of the Cypriot Church? Firstly,

the new Primate may reverse the Synod's decision to commemorate Dumenko. The reason for this reversal is apparent: the Synod allowed Archbishop Chrysostomos to mention Epiphaniy' name in the liturgy but did not oblige his successor to do so.

Secondly, if he refuses to recognise the OCU, this will unequivocally lead to a review of the issue by those who have recognised it. Cyprus has always been perceived as an ally of the Phanar, which means that its refusal to recognize the OCU would be a signal to others that the idea of "Ukrainian autocephaly" does not bode well and has not brought any benefit to the Church.

Thirdly, the new Primate of the Church of Cyprus might not cancel anything. Then the situation of the UOC will, at best, remain the same, and at worst (more likely) it will become much more difficult. The recognition of the OCU by the new Archbishop of Cyprus would mean that the possibility of reconsideration would be abandoned. The OCU's Tomos will become a quasi-ecclesiological "reality" that will be very difficult to influence.

This is why the question of the Primate of the Cypriot Church is so important to us. In fact, the situation with the "Ukrainian issue" and the general crisis of Orthodoxy depends to a large extent on who will lead the Church of Cyprus.

In order to assess the candidates' chances, let us briefly recall exactly how the election of the Archbishop of Cyprus will take place.

How will the election of the Primate of the Church of Cyprus take place?

So, by 22 November all those wishing to take part in the election were to submit their candidacies. After that, the Synod office issued a ballot paper with all the necessary information about the candidates.

Then, according to the Statute of the Church of Cyprus, all Orthodox Christians of Cyprus (regardless of citizenship) could cast their vote for any of the candidates. However, on 28 November 2022, the Holy Synod of the Orthodox Church of Cyprus met so that  to change this paragraph of the Statute. The Synodals decided that Orthodox foreigners living in Cyprus should be deprived of the right to vote in elections.

Officially, this decision was explained by the fact that "unforeseen questions" had arisen and "deadlines had been exceeded". Why these issues arose now and why all of a sudden the "deadlines" were exceeded is unclear. After all, there is still time before the elections, and the decision on their date was made by the same Synod and has not been changed since then. The Synodals went on to say that Orthodox foreigners would not be allowed to vote "so that the elections could be held as soon as possible within the time frame stipulated by the Statute".

However, another reason seems more likely. The fact is that due to Russia's war against Ukraine there are quite many refugees and emigrants from both countries in Cyprus. There are not that many Orthodox Cypriots in total – just over 500,000. It is therefore clear that even a few thousand people arriving from Ukraine could have quite a serious impact on the outcome of the vote. It is not difficult to guess that these people will cast their votes not for the bishop who submitted the best programme for the election (there is such a thing) but for the bishop who, in their opinion, stands on the position of canonical Orthodoxy, and therefore opposes the OCU. And it is precisely in order to protect themselves from "surprises" that the Synod of Cyprus decided to prohibit them from voting.

Let's go further. According to the Statute, the polling stations will be presided over by government officials, not church officials. Candidate representatives will also be present at the polling stations.

At the first stage, by universal suffrage, the Orthodox citizens of Cyprus will determine three candidates from the list of contenders. The Holy Synod will then choose the Archbishop from the three candidates. The one who receives an absolute majority of the votes of the members of the Holy Synod will be declared Primate. If this is not achieved, the ballot must be repeated at the same meeting of the Synod between the two persons who obtain a majority of votes. In the event of a tie between them, drawing lots shall take place. Thus, it can be concluded that the decision of the Synod does not depend on the number of votes received by the candidates in the popular vote. The people only choose the candidates for the synodal vote, and the Synod will choose the Primate.

According to experts, Metropolitan Athanasios of Limassol has the best chance of making it to the second round (where the vote of the Synod will take place). So far, more than 44 per cent of respondents are willing to cast their votes for him.

All the other candidates have roughly equal numbers of those willing to support them. But of these, we would particularly single out two – Metropolitan Isaiah of Tamassos and Metropolitan Neophytos of Morphou.

What can we expect from these candidates? We will talk about this in the next article.

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