martedì 20 dicembre 2022

Who will the Cypriot bishops choose next week?

(Peter Anderson)
On Sunday, December 18, Orthodox Christian Cypriots, age 18 years and older, went to the polls to designate their favorite candidate to fill the vacancy caused by the death of Archbishop Chrysostomos II, primate of the Orthodox Church of Cyprus. There were six bishops who had declared their candidacy and who were on the ballot. The percent of eligible voters who actually went to the 942 polling stations on Sunday was a disappointing 30.2% (165,688 out of 548,793 eligible voters). Under the Church’s charter, the three candidates who receive the most votes in this election by the faithful become the finalists from which the Synod of Bishops (consisting of 16 bishops) select the new primate. The following article gives the final results of the election including the votes and voter turnout in each of the dioceses. (link) The three bishops who received the most votes are as follows:

Metropolitan Athanasios of Limassol (age 63) -- 35.68%

Metropolitan Georgios of Paphos (age 73) -- 18.39%

Metropolitan Isaias of Tamasos (age 51) --18.10%

Metropolitan Athanasios had been the leader in all of the opinion polls prior to the election, so it comes as no surprise that he received the most votes in Sunday's election.  However, he did not receive an overall majority and only received over 50% in his own diocese.  The support of Georgios had increased during the weeks prior to the election.  This may be due in part to the fact that as the most senior member of the Holy Synod, he made the official announcements on behalf of the Church, and his media exposure was increased.

After the election, Metropolitan Athanasios stressed that the verdict of the people must be respected by the bishops.  He stated:  “If the opinion of the people is still not taken into account, no one will go to the next election, because there will be no reason.” (link) However, it should be noted that the election clearly had a decisive effect on the three bishops who were eliminated as a result of the election.  Not surprisingly, Georgios viewed the election results differently than Athanasios.  Georgios stated that “there is no first or second, as the criteria of the people and the hierarchs are different.” (link)

The last election for a new primate of the Church of Cyprus occurred in 2006.  It proved that the person who wins the popular vote may not emerge as the new archbishop.  In 2006 the Church’s charter provided for a very complex three stage procedure for electing a new archbishop.  This procedure is described at (link).  In the first stage, the faithful voted to select a total of 1400 “special representatives.”  At the second stage, the 1400 special representatives selected 100 “general representatives.”  The 100 general representatives then cast their ballots for the next primate at an “electoral assembly.”  Also voting at the electoral assembly was a group of 31 consisting of members of the Holy Synod and certain clergy and monastery heads.   To be elected primate, it was necessary to obtain a majority from the general representatives and also a separate majority from the group of 31.  When the general representatives voted at the electoral assembly, they voted as follows:  Bishop Nikiforos of Kykkos – 46 votes; Metropolitan Athanasios of Limassol – 45 votes; and Metropolitan Chrysostomos of Paphos – 9 votes.  Yet, through an amazing series of events, described at (link) , Chrysostomos of Paphos was elected the new primate.

It is expected that the Synod of Bishops will convene between Christmas and New Year’s Day to select the new primate.  Not surprisingly, there are already predictions as to how each member of the Synod will vote.  I found the most detailed analyses at (link) and (link).  There remain many question marks.  However, it appears that Isaias has little likelihood of success and that the contest will be between Athanasios and Georgios, with Georgios holding the advantage. 

Metropolitan Athanasios, who was born in Limassol in 1959, is very much a product of Mt. Athos.  In 1980 he entered Nea Skiti, a skete under the Agiou Pavlou Monastery.  In 1982 he was granted the Great Schema (the highest level of asceticism allowed to those with great spirituality) and was ordained a priest.  From 1987 to 1992, he was at the Vatopedi Monastery.   Beginning in 1991, he served a one-year term as head of the body that governs the entire Mt. Athos complex.  He returned to Cyprus in 1992 at the request of Archbishop Chrysostomos I and in 1999 became the Metropolitan of Limassol, the second largest city in Cyprus, at the very early age of 39.   He is a prolific writer on Orthodoxy and spiritual subjects and has many enthusiastic followers, primarily among the most conservative Orthodox, both in and outside of Cyprus.  For example, over 150 of his articles, translated into Russian, have appeared on the website of Sretensky Monastery in Moscow.  See (link)

Metropolitan Georgios was born in Athienou (now located in the UN Buffer Zone on Cyprus) in 1949.  He studied both theology and chemistry in Athens and in England.  In 1989 he was arrested by Turkish troops at an anti-occupation demonstration.  His legal case against Turkey for arrest and mistreatment reached the Council of Europe.  It was a landmark case as it involved the first occasion that the Council condemned Turkey for violating human rights in Cyprus.  In 1994 he became secretary of the Holy Synod and was ordained as the bishop of Arsinois in 1996.  After the election of Chrysostomos as primate in 2006, Georgios became the new Metropolitan of Paphos. (link)  In a sense, Georgios has acted as the foreign minister of the Church of Cyprus.  For example, he has represented the Church in inter-Orthodox affairs such as various preparatory meetings for the Crete Council.  He was the representative of the Church at the funeral of Patriarch Alexy II of Moscow in 2008.  Shortly before Archbishop Chrysostomos II died, the Archbishop expressed the hope that Georgios would be one of the three finalists because the Archbishop did not wish that the nature of the Church of Cyprus be changed. (link)

At least on certain issues, Athanasios and Georgios are poles apart.  With respect to Ukraine, Metropolitan Georgios has strongly supported the decision of Archbishop Chrysostomos to commemorate in the Liturgy Metropolitan Epifany as primate of Orthodox Church of Ukraine (OCA).  In fact, when the Archbishop first commemorated Epifany, the Archbishop chose to be in Paphos with Georgios. (link) On the other hand, Metropolitan Athanasios and three other Cypriot hierarchs on the day following this initial commemoration issued a public letter condemning the commemoration as “illegal and invalid.”  They also condemned the granting of “autocephaly” by Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew to the OCU as “an arbitrary, anti-canonical and anti-church action.” (link) Metropolitan Isaias of Tamasos, who was also one of the four signers of this letter, has now completely changed his position and has even concelebrated with a bishop of the OCU.  However, Athanasios has not retreated from what he said in his letter, except to say that whoever is elected must abide by the decisions of the Holy Synod in relation to the commemoration of Epiphany. (link) As you may recall, a majority of the members of the Holy Synod on November 23, 2020, “decided not to oppose the decision of the Archbishop” to commemorate Epifany. (link) However, this cautiously phrased decision is arguably not the equivalent to a decision that a new primate must commemorate Epifany even if the primate is personally opposed to doing so.  It is certainly possible that if Athanasios is elected primate, he may chose in his first Liturgy as primate not to commemorate Epifany.  He may also continue to omit Epifany unless and until the Holy Synod requires him to do so.

Athanasios and Georgios are also very different on ecumenical matters.  Georgios has been a member of the Joint International Commission between Orthodox and Catholic Churches for many years.  He even hosted the 2009 plenary of the Commission in Paphos.  On the other hand, Metropolitan Athanasios refused to sign the document, “Relations of the Orthodox Church with the Rest of the Christian World,” which was approved by the Crete Council.  (link) When the Cypriot Orthodox bishops met with Pope Benedict in 2010 and with Pope Francis in 2021, Athanasios boycotted both meetings.  The Metropolitan considers the pope “a heretic, estranged from the Church, and therefore not even a bishop.”  (link)

Although the Ecumenical Patriarchate has stated that it is not involved in the Cyprus election, I believe that it is quite certain that it would be greatly disappointed if Athanasios were elected as the new primate.  On the other hand, Father Nikolai Balashov, special advisor to Patriarch Kirill, informed RIA-Novosti that “after the election of a new head of the Cypriot Orthodox Church, a new situation may arise in its relations with the Russian Orthodox Church.” (link)  I believe that he had in mind the hope that Metropolitan Athanasios will be selected as the new primate.  As with many matters in the Orthodox world today, the great conflict between Moscow and Constantinople will be influenced by what occurs in Cyprus next week.

For those of you celebrating Christmas on December 25, I wish you a very blessed Nativity of Our Lord!

Peter Anderson, Seattle USA