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12° Nicosia,
20 May, 2024
 
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A state held hostage

Cyprus grapples with Church and State entanglements

Marina Economides

Marina Economides

While society was glued to shocking videos from the Monastery of Saint Avvakoum, sending a message that an entire financial - and not only - fraud was staged to the detriment of the faithful, the President of the Republic visited Mount Athos. His emotion was evident in the video he consciously made public, asking the monks there to intensify prayers for Cyprus. It was a journey he desired greatly, as noted by his close circles, underscoring his profound devotion to faith. However, beyond his inner circle's approval of the event, the presence and words of Nikos Christodoulides confused many.

Not just because of the terribly unfortunate timing, but also because it all reflected how out of place and time the State was. There was discomfort that led to days of complete lack of any serious action, raising the question of whether there is ultimately a rule of law or if bishops will eventually take on the role of Authorities. For instance, Attorney General George Savvides is currently abroad, Minister of Justice Marios Hartsiotis initially seemed to be swept along by developments, while the Police, admitting the presence of officers at the Archbishopric, revealed last Friday that no investigation had yet been conducted at the Archbishopric of Tamassos. A general difficulty in investigating what is being revealed demonstrates the perennial difficulty of the State in getting to the bottom of scandals involving the Church. It is the significant - perhaps even economic - influence of bishops in the political system, but it is also the parties' concern not to upset their deeply religious audience with their reaction. Especially amidst the pre-election period.

Authorities in a quandary

The confusion of Minister of Justice Marios Hartsiotis certainly did not go unnoticed in the first days, when he informed that he would handle the situation discreetly and that the Church had not lodged any formal complaint. It took ten days from the incident at the Archbishopric for him to explain that he was informed by reports of the presence of police and to clarify that the situation would be clarified. Certainly, his role is not the easiest, given the complexity, while the challenge for him is to prove that beyond his close ties with the Church, he will fully and impartially clarify the case. He is a known member of the Ecclesiastical Committee of the Diocese of Limassol and is very close to Metropolitan Athanasios. As much as the Minister of Justice assured that there will be clarification without discounts and reservations, the Police have not yet initiated investigations at the Archbishopric. From the action of the Police, very serious questions are raised that have not yet been answered:

• Why did police officers participate in the transfer of the monks and the movement of tens of thousands of euros in cash?

• Why did they accept the participation of hooded individuals and why did they not investigate their identity?

• Why have they not yet investigated the surveillance circuit to ascertain exactly what happened on March 5th and if criminal issues arise?

• Why did they close the case reported by writer Sofronis Sofroniou years ago on the pretext that the state cannot intervene in monasteries when the Metropolitans grant permission?

A fortified Metropolitan

The events of March 5th raise many questions but also shed light on the strong influence of Metropolitan Tamassos on wider society and the political system. The presence of former Chief of Police Kypros Michaelides, the president of the Pancyprian Bar Association Savvas Vorkas, and, more importantly, the leader of a parliamentary party, ELAM, Christos Christou, sent the message that this legitimizes the situation. Some note that his secular character is what bothers many, increasing his enemies in the Holy Synod, while others argue that his ambition combined with the significant money flowing into the Diocese are enough to raise questions, while other circles underline his very close ties with the Russian church. It's not just that he studied there and speaks the language fluently, but the fact that the very good relations are also reflected in the projects in the Diocese. The luxurious Russian church with five gold-plated domes weighing 5 tons each, in combination with the Planetarium sponsored by a Russian-Cypriot citizen, are indicative of Russian influence in the Diocese. According to church circles, these relationships not only strengthened his influence, bringing him very close to the archiepiscopal throne but also turned him into a bridge for the presence of the Russian church in Cyprus, making him part of the crisis that had been caused by the autonomy of Ukraine.

Closing ranks to the Right

Critics note that his connections with ELAM were more or less expected, as Russian influence with the Far Right is globally interconnected. Whether this holds true is a question yet to be answered, but Metropolitan Isaiah indeed managed to form such close ties with ELAM. Political circles explain that Christos Christou had established relationships with the Diocese as he hails from the area, and it was inevitable for them to build a relationship. However, there are rumors in the region that their cooperation expanded as the insecurity of the residents there began to rise. The Diocese had organized - through residents and other individuals - a security group for the area in which both residents of the area and individuals associated with ELAM participated. An open question remains whether these individuals were the hooded individuals on March 5th.

Christos Christou's involvement in the whole affair, however, raises questions about what exactly the relationship is between the Tamassos Diocese and the Far Right. This also poses questions for the president of ELAM himself about whether he ultimately participated in a situation that, as alleged, involved a series of criminal offenses. While ELAM had managed to separate its name from the crimes of Golden Dawn, the potential presence of its leader in criminal matters burdens the already tainted profile of the Far Right. This involvement certainly mobilized the parties to demand a full investigation into Christos Christou's involvement. Although AKEL was the only one to take it a step further by calling for a discussion in the House on the issue of the financial exploitation of faith, the other parties refused, accusing it of politically exploiting the scandal. Other parties seemed to be trying to separate the Avvakoum case from religion and the rest of the Church, as they understood that a frontal attack might disturb their audience. However, DIKO, through Nikolas Papadopoulos, focused on the need to investigate Christos's role, and it was not without reason, as, beyond substance, the Center's party risks losing its third place to ELAM. DISY, on the other hand, although it called for a full investigation, the apparent delay in positioning, combined with the awkwardness of DISY President Annita Demetriou to comment on the miracles scams, referring to the investigative process in an interview on state radio, showed that for the Right parties, it is not easy to boldly address issues concerning the Church.

[This article was translated from its Greek original and edited for clarity and brevity]

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Cyprus  |  Russia  |  Avvakoum Abbey  |  scandal

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