A captive church
In my introductory level course on political ideologies
, I admit to my students that, while I can see good in virtually every ideology, I have a blind spot when it comes to nationalism. I have difficulty seeing any good in nationalism, particularly the ethnic variety. This is due to the role Greek nationalism played in dividing the island of Cyprus and making it difficult, if not impossible, for the two ethnic communities to live together. I have argued in my book that Christians, above all people, have resources enabling them to see through the attractions of the secular ideologies. Unfortunately, it is often the followers of Jesus Christ, who ought to know better, who have succumbed to the allures of nationalism.
There are few things that can get my blood boiling more than this sort of story: "Bishop warns ‘yes’ voters will go to hell
," from the Cyprus Mail
Be good and you will inherit the Kingdom of Heaven, said Jesus. Vote ‘yes’ in the referendum on the Annan plan on Saturday and you will go to hell – or so says the [exiled] Bishop of Kyrenia.
On Sunday, he warned Greek Cypriots they faced damnation if they approved the UN plan.
"Those who say ‘yes’ will be party to this injustice, will lose their homeland and the kingdom of heavens," Bishop Pavlos said in a sermon on Sunday.
He went on to criticise those politicians who were in favour of the plan, saying “they want to sway the people into adopting their own submissive stance, but the people cannot be fooled”.
As if that weren't enough, Chrysostomos, Bishop of Paphos, is adding fuel to the fire his colleague started:
“I am positive that on May 1 we shall enter the European Union. That which we failed to achieve back in 1955-1959, namely Enosis (union) with the motherland Greece, we shall achieve through EU membership.
“I have invited all freedom fighters of the 1955-59 period to come to the bishopric after mass, at 10 o’clock; the bishopric’s fridges are packed with champagne bottles, and we shall crack them open to celebrate Cyprus’ enosis with Greece.”
The reference to enosis
alludes to the long campaign, spearheaded by the Orthodox Church of Cyprus, to unite the island with Greece. After Great Britain gained control of Cyprus in 1878, Cypriots began agitating for London to cede it to the Greek kingdom which had been established half a century earlier. This was part of the Meghali Idhea
, or Great Idea, which proposed to unify all Greek Orthodox Christians under a single political rule -- tantamount to a revival of the Byzantine Empire at the expense of the muslim Ottoman Empire. The Church was at the forefront of this effort.
In 1948 the Labour government in Britain offered Cyprus, along with a number of other British-controlled territories, a full measure of self-government short of complete independence. The Church of Cyprus campaigned against this, demanding either enosis
or nothing. Needless to say, they received nothing. This has been the strategy of the church ever since. Rather than being a force for peace and reconciliation, the church has blocked any sort of compromise falling short of their ideal notion of hellenic unity. Had Cypriots been more politically savvy and accepted the 1948 proposal, they would have bought themselves some time to come up with a longterm solution to the problem of Cyprus' status -- something that would have been acceptable to the ethnic Turkish minority in the island. In the meantime, both Greek and Turkish Cypriots would have acquired valuable experience in the art of politics, defined by Bernard Crick as the peaceful conciliation of diversity rather than as the use of the coercive power of government to reach for an impossible ideal.
The Church's activities over the last more than half a century have made matters considerably worse for ordinary Cypriots, both Greek and Turkish. Bishops are claiming God's stamp of approval for their own shortsighted aspirations, which someone less charitable than I might be inclined to label blasphemous. The flag of Greece flies outside church buildings and monasteries, in preference to the admittedly pedestrian flag of the Cyprus Republic. A contact in the island reports to me that this has only served to empty the pews of the churches.
The Orthodox Church has not fallen for some of the crazier trends affecting protestant churches, particularly those positioning themselves within the somewhat misnamed mainline. Yet the genuine weakness of the Orthodox Church is precisely its tendency to embrace the various ethnic nationalisms that have so marred the political landscape in the Balkans and elsewhere.