Cyprus' Greek Orthodox Archbishop Chrysostomos II dies at 81

FILE - Cyprus' Orthodox Christian church Archbishop Chrysostomos II speaks to the media during a press conference in divided capital Nicosia, Cyprus on Sept. 30, 2011. Chrysostomos has died. The state-run Cyprus Broadcasting Corporation reported his death Monday, Nov. 7, 2022. (AP Photo/Petros Karadjias, File)

NICOSIA, Cyprus (AP) — Archbishop Chrysostomos II, the outspoken leader of Cyprus’ Greek Orthodox Christian Church whose forays into the country’s complex politics and finances fired up supporters and detractors alike, has died. He was 81.

The state-run Cyprus Broadcasting Corporation reported his death Monday.

Chrysostomos had suffered from liver cancer for the last four years and had spent his final days at the church’s headquarters in the capital. The archbishop's team of doctors was expected to issue a bulletin later Monday.

The CyBC said the Holy Synod - the church's highest decision-making body - will convene to make arrangements for the funeral to which other Orthodox Church leaders will be invited.

Tall and imposing with a white beard in accordance with Orthodox clerical tradition, Chrysostomos seldom held back from speaking his mind on issues ranging from politics to the country’s finances, rallying supporters but causing consternation among some politicians and other critics who scolded him for not sticking to his religious duties.

Prior to the island nation’s multibillion-euro financial rescue by international creditors in March 2013, Chrysostomos declared he would have preferred that the cash-strapped country abandon the euro as its currency rather than accept a bailout deal that he said would set its economy back decades. He said a euro exit would at least salvage Cyprus’ dignity.

After the deal was signed, forcing large depositors in the country’s two biggest banks to take a hit on their savings, an indignant Chrysostomos said: “This isn’t the Europe that we believed in when we joined.”

The archbishop also did not refrain from making his comments personal. He once told communist-rooted former President Dimitris Christofias to engage in some self-reflection after having been handed a “prosperous, happy nation and leaving it with some people going hungry.”

The cleric railed against politicians and bankers he called “thieves” who ran for cover while “poor people paid the piper” for their ruinous decisions. He also warned that he wouldn’t hesitate to call on the people to rise up in order to prevent technocrats from “wreaking havoc” on the country’s banking sector.

His comments about the world of finance prompted some critics to say he was behaving more like a businessman and banker than a spiritual leader.

Although Chrysostomos had in the past openly courted Russian investors and the Kremlin’s political support, relations with the Russian Orthodox Church frayed when he followed in 2020 the Ecumenical Patriarchate’s decision to recognize the new Ukrainian Orthodox Church’s independence.

His forays into the region’s conflict zones included a visit to war-torn Syria in 2016 to offer support to that country’s Orthodox faithful. During the coronavirus pandemic, he threw his full support behind scientists’ recommendations for inoculations and other restrictions aimed at preventing the virus’ spread.

His ascension to the throne in 2006, after his predecessor and namesake could no longer carry out his duties because of poor health, reflected his political adroitness.

Church leaders in Cyprus are elected by lay voters in combination with a college of clerics, a tradition that goes back centuries. Hardly the people’s favorite and trailing the two frontrunners in the lay vote, Chrysostomos outmaneuvered his rivals by clinching majority support within the college to win.

Chrysostomos was always open about his right-wing politics and was not afraid to use his influence to steer the Holy Synod to bend to his will, even before he became a leader.

Chrysostomos had spoken openly about his distrust of Turkey’s intentions in Cyprus. In a 2018 interview, he said he never believed that 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 split in 1974 when Turkey invaded after a coup by supporters of union with Greece. Turkish Cypriots declared an independent state in the north of the Mediterranean island, recognized only by Turkey, which maintains 35,000 troops there.

Chrysostomos campaigned in 2004 for the church to take a stand against what was believed to be an unfair U.N.-drafted peace plan that the vast majority of Greek Cypriots subsequently voted down in a referendum.

Addressing Pope Benedict XVI during the pontiff’s 2010 visit to the island, Chrysostomos accused Turkey of trying to carry out “its obscure plans which include the annexation of the land now under military occupation and then a conquest of the whole of Cyprus.”

Chrysostomos also said Turks “ruthlessly sacked” Christian artworks, claiming they were seeking to make Greek and Christian culture disappear from northern Cyprus. Just as he urged former Pope Benedict, the archbishop also appealed to Pope Francis during the pontiff’s 2021 visit to Cyprus for help to ensure the protection of the sacred Christian monuments.

Despite his politics, the archbishop worked closely with the Muslim mufti, the religious leader of the Turkish Cypriots, as well as other Christian leaders to rebuild religious sites to send the message that faith is an anchor rather than a hindrance to peace.

The church’s weighty influence in Cyprus dates back to the Middle Ages, when the island’s Ottoman rulers had recognized it as the sole representative body of the Greek Orthodox Christian population. That continued right up to 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, Chrysostomos’ religious calling came early when he joined Cyprus’ famous monastery of Saint Neophytos as a lay-brother right after completing primary school. He steadily rose through the church’s ranks until 1978, when he was enthroned bishop of his native prefecture of Paphos.

As archbishop, Chrysostomos shored up church finances and enacted a string of reforms, includng restoring the church’s decision-making independence by bolstering the Holy Synod with the ordination of new bishops and the drafting of a new constitution.

Chrysostomos also opened a church office at the European Union’s headquarters in Brussels and was a strong supporter of closer relations between the Orthodox and Catholic churches.

“I want to do real work, not just for show. I came and I’ll eventually be gone, so I want to leave something behind for this country, that’s what matters,” Chrysostomos told state broadcaster CyBC in 2022