Archbishop Chrysostomos I: Leading cleric in Cyprus

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The Independent Online

Christophoros Aristodimou, priest: born Statos, Cyprus 27 September 1927; ordained deacon 1951, priest 1961; Bishop of Constantia 1968-73; Metropolitan of Paphos 1973-77; Archbishop of Cyprus 1977-2006; died Nicosia 22 December 2007.

Archbishop Makarios, the controversial ethnarch of Cyprus's Greek Orthodox majority and first president of the Republic of Cyprus, was a difficult act to follow. It was in the wake of Makarios's death in August 1977 after a troubled political and ecclesiastical career that Chrysostomos, then Metropolitan of Paphos in western Cyprus, was elected. He thus became head of an Orthodox jurisdiction that dated its self-governing status to the Council of Ephesus in 431.

Lacking the charisma of his predecessor, Chrysostomos never put himself forward as a political leader. But he was, if anything, more tenacious than his predecessor had been in quixotically pressing for enosis, Cyprus's union with Greece, a cause Makarios had abandoned in favour of that for the island's independence.

Born Christophoros Aristodimou in the village of Statos in the Paphos region of the island, into a devout Greek Orthodox family, Chrysostomos deciding early on he wanted to serve the Church. He entered Cyprus's most famous Orthodox monastery, at Kykko, where he was seen as a gifted pupil and sent to study at the Pancyprian Gymnasium, located in Nicosia's old town opposite the Archbishop's Palace. Graduating in 1950, he returned to Kykko monastery. He was ordained deacon in February 1951.

Chrysostomos earned degrees in philosophy and theology from the University of Athens. After graduate studies in Britain, he returned to Cyprus to work as a teacher. He was ordained priest in October 1961 and for the next five years taught theology at his Alma Mater, the Pancyprian Gymnasium.

In April 1968 he was elected bishop of the titular see of Constantia, becoming metropolitan of his home region of Paphos in July 1973. His appointment to Paphos followed Makarios's controversial ousting of three bishops who had called on him to resign as president. Chrysostomos survived as bishop while Makarios suppressed a subsequent political and ecclesiastical revolt by the three rebels.

After his election as archbishop in November 1977, Chrysostomos sought to shore up the Greeks' position in the wake of the trauma of the Turkish invasion of the north in 1974, the division of the island and mass exchanges of population. He vigorously backed those challenging the Turkish occupation.

Within the troubled Church, Chrysostomos stuck resolutely by bishops and clergy accused of sexual and financial scandal, despite the evidence. "It is all for revenge," he said of those who criticised one famous erring cleric.

He was socially conservative, mobilising his clergy in the late 1980s in a failed bid to oppose civil marriage. In 1998 he lashed out at those who backed decriminalising gay sex, dubbing them "enemies of our nation". He threatened to excommunicate homosexuals and their supporters. His outburst embarrassed the government, which had just begun accession talks with the European Union.

Chrysostomos's final years were sad. A not entirely successful heart operation in the late 1990s began his physical demise, and a subsequent fall down the stairs of the Archbishop's Palace left him with head wounds requiring hospital treatment. Returning to his palace in Nicosia several months later, he was hoisted up to his specially adapted room from where he would see out his years at the helm of the Church.

Visitors to the Archbishop's Palace found him forgetful. As he sat beneath portraits of himself and Makarios on the walls, with further pictures of himself with Bill Clinton and Benjamin Netanyahu nearby, Chrysostomos would speak proudly of the ancient lineage of his office. With visiting Americans he would point out the role of the laity in choosing the island's bishops, which he claimed was at the basis of the American system of choosing a president. "We are older than you so you stole our system," he would say with a laugh.

The entrenched division of the island was a constant topic: Chrysostomos insisted that the island's ethnic Turks were really ethnic Greeks who had been forced to convert to Islam during the centuries of Ottoman rule. Chrysostomos would show visitors his prize exhibit: the standard raised by one of his predecessors in 1821 in an uprising against the Ottomans.

As he showed growing signs of Alzheimer's disease and was in a coma from 2005, the Holy Synod became anxious for a successor to be appointed, but Chrysostomos's family were opposed. In May 2006 Patriarch Bartholomew of Constantinople convoked a pan-orthodox synod near Geneva to break the log jam. Chrysostomos kept his honorific titles, but was removed as day-to-day leader of the Church.

Felix Corley