The Island of Saints

WHEN PEOPLE THINK of Byzantine Churches today, Constantinople (Byzantium) comes to mind as do the “Ancient Patriarchates” (Antioch, Alexandria and Jerusalem} which adopted this rite later in their history. The largest Byzantine Churches today are the Slavic Churches (Russia, Ukraine, and the rest). These are also the Churches most represented in the West. But there are other ancient Churches with ancient histories that are less common in the West, such as the Apostolic Church of Cyprus and the Church of Georgia. Neither of these Churches have eparchies in the United States, so we may know little about them.

The Church of Barnabas and Mark

Cyprus, an island in the Mediterranean west of Syria, was settled by Greeks in the eleventh century bc. By the first century ad, it was part of the Roman Empire.

According to the Acts of the Apostles, Cyprus was one of the first non-Jewish territories to receive the Gospel. “Now those who were scattered after the persecution that arose over Stephen traveled as far as Phoenicia, Cyprus, and Antioch,,,” (Acts 11:19). Cypriots trace the founding of their Church to the apostles, specifically Barnabas and Mark, who went there after they parted from St Paul (see Acts 15:36-41). Dependent at first on the Church of Jerusalem and, later on, on Antioch, the Cypriot Church was made autocephalous at the Council of Ephesus (431).

Cyprus was occupied by the Arabs (649-965), the Crusaders (1191-1473), the Venetians (1473-1570), and the Ottoman Turks (1570-1878). Under the Crusaders and Venetians, the Church of Cyprus was subjected to Latin rule and the Latins were recognized as the island’s elite. Under Turkish control the Ottoman millet system was introduced and restored the autocephaly of the Orthodox Church. Its archbishop was declared to be the head of the rum millet on Cyprus. Despite the taxation, harassment and outright persecution at times, the Church prospered under Ottoman rule. By 1878 it numbered two-thirds of the island’s population in its ranks.

As a result of the Russo-Turkish War, the British Empire took control of Cyprus in 1878. Many hoped that Cyprus would be united to Greece, but when Britain ceded control of the island in 1960 it was to an independent Republic of Cyprus. In 1974 those favoring union with Greece deposed the president and sought to unite the island to Greece. The Turkish army invaded and partitioned Cyprus into Greek and Turkish parts. None of the many attempts at reunion which followed have been successful.

The Saints of Cyprus

Cyprus has been called “the island of saints.” Some 240 local saints are commemorated on its calendar. A synaxis for all these saints is celebrated in Cyprus on the first Sunday of October.

Perhaps the most famous Cypriot saints – after the apostles – are:

St Lazarus the Four-Days Dead (Mar. 17) – Lazarus of Bethany, whom the Lord raised from his tomb, is said to have fled to Cyprus in the first persecution of Christians in Jerusalem mentioned in Acts 11. He settled in Kition (present day Larnaca), where he is regarded as its first bishop. Lazarus’ tomb in Larnaca, with the inscription “Lazarus, the Friend of Christ,” was discovered in 860. The bulk of his relics were taken to Constantinople in 869, but the emperor built a church over the saint’s tomb. In 1972 a marble sarcophagus containing human remains was excavated below the altar of this church.

The Palm Sunday carol, “Rejoice, O Bethany,” sung in many Middle Eastern churches, is of Cypriot origin.

St Spyridon the Wonderworker (Dec. 12) – Born at the end of the third century, he was a shepherd so known for his piety and generosity to those in need that, after the death of his wife, he was chosen to be bishop of Tremithusia, a village in northern Cyprus.

Spyridon attended the First Ecumenical Council in 325 where he reputedly converted a pagan philosopher to Christ. In his Life, the philosopher is said to have responded, “Listen! Until now my rivals have presented their arguments, and I was able to refute their proofs with other proofs. But instead of proofs from reason, the words of this Elder are filled with some sort of special power, and no one can refute them, since it is impossible for man to oppose God. If any of you thinks as I do now, let him believe in Christ and join me in following this man, for God Himself speaks through his lips.”
Stories of St Spyridon’s life and the healings attributed to him are found in the fifth-century Church histories of Socrates Scholasticus and Sozomen. His life was included in the tenth-century Menologion written by St Simeon Metaphrastes.

St Spyridon died in 348 and his body was later found to be incorrupt and a source of healing. When the Arab invaded Cyprus in 649, the saint’s holy remains were taken to Constantinople. With the fall of that city to the Turks in the fifteenth century, the relics were taken to the island of Corfu where they are today.

St Spyridon is also regarded as the protector of Corfu. In 1716 that island, then under Venetian rule, was besieged by the Turks. St Spyridon is said to have been seen by the Turkish troops walking through their camp. This apparition sent the Turks into a panic and the siege was lifted after only 22 days. Since then it has become the custom to replace the slippers on the saint’s body when they show signs of wear, because, in walking about the island to care for the people, St Spyridon “wears out” his shoes.

The Hieromartyr St Philoumenos (Nov 29) – Born in 1913, this contemporary Cypriot saint and his twin brother were raised by their devout grandmother on the Church’s prayers and the lives of the saints. At the age of fourteen they entered the Stavrovouni Monastery in Cyprus. After five years, the brothers went to Jerusalem where, in 1939, Fr Philoumenos joined the Brotherhood of the Holy Sepulcher which cares for the holy places in the Orthodox Patriarchate of Jerusalem.

Known for his piety and devotion to the performance of the daily services even when alone, Fr Philoumenos was appointed guardian of the monastery at Jacob’s Well, near Nablus, where Jesus had asked a Samaritan woman for a drink.

A few months later a group of Zionist extremists came to the monastery demanding the removal of all icons, crosses, etc. and that the monastery be given to them as a Jewish site. The saint reminded them that the Church had served this shrine since the time of the Emperor Constantine and that it had been in Samaritan hands for eight centuries before that.

A few days later, on November 29, a group entered the monastery and desecrated the church. They butchered Fr Philoumenos with a hatchet in the form of a cross, plucked out his eyes and cut off the fingers of his right hand (with which he would make the sign of the cross).

Fr Philoumenos’ body retained its elasticity for several days. When it was exhumed in 1984, it was found to be substantially incorrupt. Fr Philoumenos was glorified as a saint by the Jerusalem Patriarchate in 2008 and his relics enshrined in the church at Jacob’s Well where he had been martyred.