Nicosia, Cyprus — Archbishop Chrysostom II, the outspoken leader of Cyprus’ Greek Orthodox Christian Church whose forays into the country’s complex politics and finances aroused supporters and critics alike, died Monday. He was 81.
Chrysostom had suffered from liver cancer for four years and spent his final days at Church headquarters in the capital.
A bulletin issued by a medical team said the archbishop “died peacefully after facing the process of his suffering with courage, patience and Christian perseverance” at 6:40 a.m. Monday.
“All who were close to him in the difficult hours of his suffering experienced his humility, kindness and deep faith, as well as his concern for his flock,” the bulletin says. It added that the Archbishop left a legacy marked by his “vision,” daring, respect for and restoration of the Church’s historical tradition, as well as innovative changes that always aimed at Church unity.
The Holy Synod – the Church’s highest decision-making body – will meet to make arrangements for the funeral, to which other leaders of the Orthodox Church will be invited.
The leader of the world’s Orthodox Christian believers, Patriarch Bartholomew, has expressed his willingness to attend Chrysostom’s funeral, according to the Patriarchate’s official website.
Meanwhile, tributes were pouring in for the archbishop. Cypriot President Nicos Anastasiades praised Chrysostom for “a tremendous reform package for Orthodoxy and the Church and the well-being of our people”. Matters of church and society which are now subject to the judgment of history.”
Tall and imposing with a white beard in keeping with orthodox clerical tradition, Chrysostom rarely refrained from voicing his opinions on subjects ranging from the country’s politics to its religious duties.
Before the island nation’s multi-billion dollar bailout by international creditors in March 2013, Chrysostom said he would have preferred the ailing country to abandon the euro as its currency rather than accept a bailout that he said would set its economy back decades would . He said leaving the euro would at least save Cyprus’s dignity.
After signing the deal, which forced large depositors in the country’s two largest banks to take a hit on their savings, an outraged Chrysostom said: “This is not the Europe we believed in when we joined. “
Even the archbishop did not refrain from personal statements. He once urged communist-roots former President Dimitris Christofias to engage in self-reflection after being handed over a “prosperous, happy nation and left with some starving people.”
The cleric railed against politicians and bankers, whom he called “thieves” who took cover while “poor people paid the piper” for their ruinous decisions. He also warned that he would not hesitate to urge people to stand up to stop technocrats from “wreaking havoc” in the country’s banking sector.
His comments about the world of finance have led some critics to say that he behaves more like a businessman and banker than a spiritual leader.
Although Chrysostom had openly solicited Russian investors and political support from the Kremlin in the past, ties with the Russian Orthodox Church collapsed when he followed the Ecumenical Patriarchate’s decision to recognize the independence of the new Ukrainian Orthodox Church in 2020.
His forays into the region’s conflict zones included a 2016 visit to war-torn Syria to offer support to that country’s Orthodox believers. During the coronavirus pandemic, he gave his full support to scientists’ recommendations for vaccinations and other restrictions aimed at preventing the virus from spreading.
His accession to the throne in 2006, after his predecessor and namesake was no longer able to hold office for health reasons, testified to his political skill.
Church leaders in Cyprus are elected by lay electors in combination with a college of clergy, a tradition dating back centuries. Hardly the people’s favorite and behind the top two in the lay vote, Chrysostom outmaneuvered his rivals by securing majority support within the college to win.
Chrysostom was always open about his right-wing politics and was not afraid to use his influence to get the Holy Synod to bend to his will even before he became a leader.
Chrysostom had been open about his distrust of Turkey’s intentions in Cyprus. In a 2018 interview, he said he never believed a peace deal to reunify the ethnically divided island nation was possible because Turkey wanted to establish a Turkish state in the country.
Cyprus was divided in 1974 when Turkey invaded after a coup by supporters of the union with Greece. Turkish Cypriots declared an independent state in the north of the Mediterranean island, recognized only by Turkey, which has 35,000 troops there.
Chrysostom lobbied in 2004 for the Church to take a stand against an allegedly unfair UN peace plan that the vast majority of Greek Cypriots later rejected in a referendum.
During the Pope’s visit to the island in 2010, Chrysostom approached Pope Benedict XVI.
Chrysostom also said the Turks “ruthlessly plundered” Christian artworks and claimed they were trying to wipe out Greek and Christian culture from northern Cyprus. Just as he admonished former Pope Benedict, during the Pope’s visit to Cyprus in 2021, the archbishop also appealed to Pope Francis to help him ensure the protection of sacred Christian monuments.
Despite his policies, the archbishop worked closely with the Muslim mufti, the religious leader of Turkish Cypriots, as well as other Christian leaders to rebuild religious sites and convey the message that faith is an anchor rather than an obstacle to peace.
The church’s powerful influence in Cyprus dates back to the Middle Ages, when the island’s Ottoman rulers recognized it as the sole representative body of the Greek Orthodox Christian population. This lasted until 1960, when Cyprus gained independence from British colonial rule with the election of then Archbishop Makarios as the country’s first president.
Born on April 10, 1941, Chrysostom came to the Order at an early age, entering Cyprus’ famous Monastery of Saint Neophytos as a lay brother straight out of primary school. He rose steadily in the ranks of the Church until 1978, when he was enthroned bishop of his home prefecture, Paphos.
As archbishop, Chrysostom propped up the church’s finances and implemented a series of reforms, including restoring the church’s agency by strengthening the Holy Synod through the ordination of new bishops, and drafting a new constitution.
Chrysostom also opened a church office at the European Union headquarters in Brussels and was a strong advocate of closer ties between the Orthodox Church and the Catholic Church.
“I want to do real work, not just for the show. I came and will eventually go, so I want to leave a legacy to this country, that’s what matters,” Chrysostom told state broadcaster CyBC in 2022.