The Holy Synod in Cyprus is gearing up for high-stakes elections after Archbishop Chrysostomos was laid to rest on Saturday, following a funeral service officiated by Ukraine-backer Bartholomew whose historic trip from Istanbul foreshadows a colossal dilemma of epic consequences for the island and the orthodox world at large.
Cyprus’ Archbishop Chrysostomos II, who died a week ago after a long battle with cancer, was buried in a crypt he had commissioned beneath Apostle Varnavas Cathedral near the Archbishopric in Nicosia, exactly 16 years after his enthronement on 12 November 2006.
The funeral service was officiated by Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew, whose flight from Istanbul to the divided island’s old airport terminal in Larnaca last week made history as it was the first time the leader of the Patriarchate of Constantinople set foot on the island in 400 years.
“We came indeed for the first time in Cyprus to pay tribute and bid farewell to our much beloved brother and lend support to his orphaned children,” Bartholomew said.
But the passing of Chrysostomos has not been without political fallout and controversy over his succession, amid an East-West split that has been fueled by the war in Ukraine.
Chrysostomos was often criticized for his political and business interests while he has also carried out several reforms, such as bolstering the Holy Synod with the ordination of new bishops and the drafting of a new constitution.
But the biggest move by the late archbishop came in 2020 when he moved unilaterally to recognize the new Ukrainian Orthodox Church’s independence from Moscow, overturning an earlier Holy Synod position of neutrality on the controversial issue.
The move caused a rift within the Holy Synod, a division that was first illustrated in public in late November 2020 when dissenter Bishop Nikiforos of Kykkos lost his temper when a reporter teased him over the issue.
On Monday morning the Holy Synod is expected to decide on the voting date, possibly before Christmas, and also clear up electorate issues before Orthodox believers throughout the island are called to nominate their candidate to be amongst the top three, from whom the Holy Synod will then pick the successor.
Local media reports said Chrysostomos had drawn up a list of preferred successors, suggesting the late archbishop had made an effort to ensure the Church of Cyprus would remain positioned in the West
According to local theologian Theodoros Kyriacou, a lot has been happening behind the scenes, telling state radio on Monday morning that seven of the sixteen members of the Holy Synod have shown interest in the throne.
Kyriacou also made comments after local media reports said Chrysostomos had drawn up a list of preferred successors, suggesting the late archbishop had made an effort to ensure the Church of Cyprus would remain positioned in the West.
But religious expert Aristides Viketos says he is not aware of any list, arguing if Chrysostomos wanted to ensure a western direction then the late archbishop would have stepped down last year.
Viketos told state radio Monday morning that delays in the election process before the final pick possibly in January was due to difficulty in compiling voting lists, adding the Church would seek the State’s help while also “guarding the privacy of voters,” including personal information and even a believer’s handwriting style on the ballot.
Orthodox believers in Cyprus, including many Russians and Ukrainians and other foreigners who belong to the church, can vote if they are aged 18 and above, have stayed in Cyprus at least one year, and can show proof of baptism. The Holy Synod will them pick the successor out of the top three candidates.
But Viketos admitted there were issues with determining residency and eligibility as well as privacy issues, suggesting the Church could pay the State to help carry out the election as well as setting up ballot boxes in churches.
A candidate who qualifies to be the next archbishop is any male over the age of 35 who is unmarried, holds a theology degree, and has served the Church of Cyprus in any capacity for at least ten years. Voters can place a checkmark next to their choice or write in another name.
In case of a tie during the final step of the process, the members of the Holy Synod will vote again between only the two top candidates. If there is still a tie between the top two, then the lieutenant bishop in charge of the throne will flip a coin.
But picking the next archbishop in Cyprus is an issue that remained politically charged even during Saturday’s funeral when Greek President Katerina Sakellaropoulou called on Chrysostomos’ successor follow the late archbishop’s legacy and keep the Church of Cyprus on the same path with the Patriarchate in Istanbul.
Chrysostomos’ pro-Ukraine position had support from Bartholomew, who had also recognized the autocephaly of the Church of Ukraine in 2019, triggering a split with Moscow and severing its centuries-long ties with the Russian Orthodox Church, which immediately cut ties with the Patriarchate.
“He was an ardent supporter of the views of the Ecumenical Patriarchate in times of turmoil and obstacles," Bartholomew said, adding that Chrysostomos “stood bravely as a bastion of primate duty.”
Russia left out as East-West seek common Easter date
Cardinal Kurt Koch, prefect of the Dicastery for Promoting Christian Unity, read a statement at the funeral on behalf of Pope Francis, saying Chrysostomos was an “inspiration to Christians everywhere.”
The pontiff also wrote in his statement that the late archbishop had made positive contributions to efforts “to the vital journey towards the full communion of Orthodox and Catholics.”
Last week Bartholomew told reporters in Istanbul that he would meet with Koch in Cyprus.
Reports said the Patriarch talked about joint efforts with Francis regarding the celebration of the 1700th anniversary of the first Ecumenical Council, which took place in Nicaea in 325.
Christian bishops during the first council had agreed that all churches should follow a single rule for determining Easter independently of the Jewish calendar but failed to provide explicit rules to determine the date.
"But, unfortunately, for many years we no longer celebrate it together, for many centuries. Therefore, within the framework of this anniversary, the subject of our joint efforts with the Pope is to find a solution to this issue. It may not be time to talk about any details yet, but I’d like to emphasize that there is this good intention from the Orthodox and Catholic sides to finally set a common date for the celebration of Christ's Resurrection," Bartholomew was quoted as saying last week.
It is understood that a common Easter date would further isolate the Russian Orthodox Church, with some Cypriot bishops already leaning towards the west while others maintain neutrality positions or even maintain ties with Moscow.
During his speech at the funeral, President Nicos Anastasiades said Chrysostomos had managed through his firm stance to secure the autocephaly of the Church of Cyprus from any foreign influence or dependence.
Anastasiades also said that the late archbishop was theologically educated, had a genuine spirituality, ethics, sound judgment, and was wise and loyal to his country.