Fabrice Nodé-Langlois – July 2013
Archbishop Chrysostomos II, leader of the orthodox Church of Cyprus, behaves like a head of a wealthy business empire and wields considerable influence in public policy. To meet him is to encounter an indispensable figure of this country marked by financial and social crises.
As the small Mediterranean island republic of Cyprus finds itself in the midst of an historic economic crisis, the head of its Orthodox Church appears prominently in political debate. Archbishop Chrysostomos II is ever-present and never holds back.
At the end of March, in exchange for €10bn in aid, the Europe rescue plan imposed a haircut on accounts of over €100,000 in the country’s two main banks. With barely a moment gone to waste after new Cypriot president Nicos Anastasiades accepted this plan, the prelate demanded the resignation of the minister of finance and the governor of the central bank, despite having supported Anastasiades during his presidential campaign.
Chrysostomos II, “Archbishop of new Justiniana and all Cyprus”, offers his opinion on all subjects. The prelate is above all a businessman at the head of a very wealthy church. He is also said to enjoy privileged relations with Moscow. This key figure on the island, and without a doubt its most influential personality, inevitably stirs wild emotions.
“You’re going to see the Archbishop?” asks an amused Panicos, taxi driver, on the way to the Archdiocese in the heart of old Nicosia, surrounded by Venetian ramparts. “Keep an eye on your rings! The Church is extremely wealthy. It’s the mafia!”
The beatific businessman
The prelate receives visitors in the Episcopal Palace, a Byzantine-revival structure built on elegant arcades in the 1950s. In the courtyard stands a statue of Archbishop Makarios III, famed predecessor of Chrysostomos II and first president of independent Cyprus in 1959.
This morning, Chrysostomos II welcomes his visitor wearing a simple blue cassock. The red-lined sleeve falls back to reveals a large gold watch. After the ritual handkissing, which imposes a certain distance, the septuagenarian with a thick grey beard exudes warmth. His eyes sparkle from behind his wire-rimmed glasses, and his smile is generous.
On the subject of the financial rescue plan and its draconian quid pro quos, which President Anastasiades has been trying to soften, his Beatitude hands down harsh judgment. “The situation has been created by Germany, the IMF and the ECB. They have punished Cyprus.” It’s a sense of injustice widely shared by investors, many of whom have seen their savings go up in smoke from one day to the next.
As expected, the Church has been opening soup kitchens and helping those in greatest need. With its wealth, the Church helps the nation with a keen business sense. Cluttered with folders and adorned with a meeting table, Chrysostomos II’s vast office evokes that of a CEO.
Beyond its real estate wealth, the Church of Cyprus is the leading shareholder in the brewery that produces the national beer, Keo. It is also a major shareholder – with a 29 per cent stake – in the Hellenic Bank, the country’s third-largest financial institution. “We will not abandon it,” assures the Archbishop, adding with a little laugh that shakes his beard: “We told the government not to touch it.” The Church also owned five per cent of the shares of the Bank of Cyprus, which is now being fully restructured. Those shares, the top financier admits, were lost.
Privileged links with Moscow
In Paphos, for €1.5m a year, the Church has leased 50,000 square metres to Russian investors who plan to build a hotel. The Church is said to enjoy privileged ties with Russia, and Chrysostomos II makes no secret of it. When the previous government wanted to ask Moscow for an extension of the deadlines for the loan of €2.5bn in 2011, he says, he arranged “a meeting in Europe with the Russian Patriarch, who went to intercede with Putin. President Christofias was to call Putin immediately. That call took him thirteen days to make.” It was an affront to the Kremlin, reasons the prelate.
Like his Orthodox cousins in Russia, Chrysostomos II “is very nationalist”, says a foreign observer. The housing boom and the growth of the past years have drawn some 100,000 Romanian, Bulgarian, Filipinos and Pakistani immigrants to the Greek side of the island, where the total population is 800,000. “These are all God’s children, and I don’t want them to leave,” the Archbishop begins. “If they were not there, though, there would be no unemployment.”
A Church that holds out against everything
How to explain his continual intervention in the political debate? Chrysostomos II’s answer is quick and firm: “The Church states its opinion because it has been here for two thousand years.” The tradition goes back to Saint Barnabas, contemporary of Christ, who crossed the stretch of the Mediterranean separating the Holy Land from the island of Aphrodite.
“One must not try to understand the Church of Cyprus using Western references,” warns Andreas Theophanous, Professor of Economics at the University of Nicosia and supporter of a controlled exit from the euro. “Cyprus was dominated by the Ottomans in the 15th century. The Pope did not come to our rescue, because he asked us to submit to his authority in return. The Turks turned to the Archbishop, who had become the island’s de facto political leader. People ceded their property to the Church so that it would be protected, and that is how the Church became rich,” the professor says. Chrysostomos II has the last word: “If this island has remained Greek and Christian, it is 100 per cent thanks to the Church.”
The coming years look to be very difficult for Cypriots. According to forecasts from Brussels, the GDP will fall up to 9 percent in 2013 and unemployment will climb above 17 per cent in 2014. There is a looming threat of Greek-style austerity. “Everything fell apart in just a few weeks,” repeat many of the inhabitants of Nicosia, some of whom saw half their life savings vanish overnight. Everything collapsed except the Church, which still stands firm on its Cypriot rock, as it has for 2,000 years.
Translated from the French by Anton Baer