By Stefanos Evripidou
NO ONE can accuse the Archbishop Chrysostomos II of being boring. A few words spoken by the colourful primate get more press coverage than most politicians could dream of.
During official visits to Cyprus, notable figures like the presidents of Russia, Syria and Israel make time in their busy schedules to stop by the archbishopric for a chat with the religious leader. According to diplomatic sources, Cyprus protocol makes a visit to the president, house president and archbishop compulsory despite claims to the contrary by the foreign ministry.
The fact Chrysostomos does not shy away from the limelight or from giving his opinion on all aspects of political life only adds to the amount of exposure he gets. The press love him for his sound bites while politicians, both supporters and detractors, try hard not to step on his toes.
The church leader’s repeated forays into political debates have given weight to the argument that he is helping to blur the line between church and state.
In an interview last week, the archbishop invited bids for potential presidential candidates saying he was looking for the right candidate to support in the 2013 elections, someone who will set the peace talks on the right track and prevent the island from turning Turkish.
Despite his brash political commentary, particularly regarding the peace talks, Chrysostomos has been described by those who meet him as an astute political player, but also someone with whom you can negotiate.
Given the church’s historic role in Cyprus, as representatives of Christian Cypriots during Ottoman and British rule, and later providing a cleric as the first president of the republic, it’s not hard to see why today’s archbishop interprets his area of responsibility in the widest possible way.
Indicative of the special relationship the religious leader has with the state is a list found on the foreign ministry website relating to state protocol. It provides an order of precedence for official events in which the president of the republic comes first, the archbishop second and the House president third, followed by other officials from the executive, legislature, judiciary and other institutions.
The order effectively lays down the rules for official events on who should sit where and in what order. This may seem rather pedantic, but it does raise an interesting question: just how secular is the modern state of Cyprus?
According to one foreign ministry source, unlike Greece, the Cyprus constitution does not provide for an official religion, making the archbishop’s place in the pecking order somewhat peculiar.
A law passed by parliament in the mid-1990s cemented the primate’s prominence in state protocol. Recent efforts by one ministry official to modernise the order of precedence have so far fallen on deaf ears.
“The church played a big role during the Ottoman period and we acknowledge that, but the archbishop shouldn’t even be on this list. It’s a problem. The law is obsolete and needs to be updated,” said the source, adding that this would require serious lobbying in parliament.
Another reason for the revision of this list is the fact it leaves out new institutions and officials that have sprung up since Cyprus joined the EU in 2004.
One of the people not on the list which effectively dictates seating arrangements at official functions is Deputy Minister to the President for European Affairs Andreas Mavroyiannis.
While showing no concern for securing a front row seat, the diplomat did point to the anomaly of having the archbishop included in state protocol.
“He is not a state official. You can’t have in the order of precedence the head of the church as number two. It’s against the spirit and letter of the constitution which has a clear separation of church and state,” said Mavroyiannis.
“In practice, you can’t ignore his presence, and we’ll put him somewhere prominent, but it shouldn’t be enshrined in law.”
He questioned however whether there was the political will to change this seemingly outdated model: “It’s a very risky exercise.”
Ottoman history expert at the University of Cyprus, Michalis Michael, highlighted Cyprus’ peculiarity stemming from Ottoman rule, which afforded clerics positions of authority over the Greek Cypriot population.
He said Britain had its own view of what a modern colonial state should be, but after 1910 it acquiesced to the idea of giving men of the cloth a political role.
“They were forced to do this because of the history of the place. It’s hard to fight a 2,000 year old institution,” said Michael.
“When the Cyprus state was established in 1960, we didn’t have an education ministry because it was considered the responsibility of each community, not the state… We have a modern state of sorts, but we are the only state in the world which is not [officially] responsible for education,” he said.
Before Cyprus joined the EU, it was told to replace the Greek flags outside official buildings with EU ones. The education minister at the time said he would not remove them from schools because theoretically the state was not responsible for education.
“It’s a crazy situation, not normal, but this is Cyprus reality. Schools still have Greek flags as does the church which is not part of the state,” said Michael. “We are a modern state with the weight of our Ottoman and British past.”
Regarding the order of precedence, the academic called for the necessary changes to be made. “If you are a modern state, religious officials should come after political ones, not before. Either you want to be a secular state or a theocracy.”
Cypriot Member of the European Parliament Antigoni Papadopoulou told the Sunday Mail that she was not at all bothered by the archbishop’s prominent presence on the precedence list.
“Sure we are a republic but the church has played a long role in Cyprus’ history.”
The DIKO MEP did acknowledge however the need to review the list.
“We need to make the necessary changes by first discussing with the stakeholders, looking at the practices of other countries while taking into account our own realities,” she said.
One Cypriot MP and former government official who did not wish to be named said the custom of giving clerics priority has existed since the 1960s and was merely reconfirmed with some slight adjustments in the 1990s.
“This place has always been a religious state. If I raise the issue of changing the order of precedence in parliament tomorrow, I would not find a majority to pass it,” he said.
EVROKO leader and chairman of the House institutions committee Demetris Syllouris said Cyprus was not alone in having its own traditions.
“Every modern state has its traditions, which it preserves. In a modern state like Britain, should there be a role for the monarchy or the House of Lords?” he asked.
“The church played a role in the anti-colonial struggle and liberation of Cyprus which allowed it to become a state today. There is complete separation of church and state. Putting the archbishop second on the list does not give him any political power,” he said.
Syllouris also had a word for the primate’s detractors: “Those criticising the archbishop should bear in mind the parties that were running to him in the 2008 presidential elections seeking his support.”