FAITH TOURISM. OVER THE CENTURIES different civilisations have staked their claim to the island of Cyprus and inevitably, in accordance with the people that have lived and ruled here, the religious climate has endured much change.
Today, Cyprus comprises many different religions but in majority terms, the South is predominantly populated by Greek Orthodox and the Turkish North by those of Islamic faith.
That said, religion is not pursued zealously in the North. Of course, you will still hear the call to prayer five times a day broadcast from the many mosques in the towns and villages, but this side of the island is also home to many ethnic groups and the North readily embraces and caters for those who follow other religions.
For the not insignificant community of ex-pats there is, for example, a Church of England vicar in residence in Kyrenia with the small parish church of St Andrew, and for the Catholic community the Church of St Elizabeth of Hungary where mass is said every Sunday by a priest who visits from the South.
What’s more, whilst many of the Greek Orthodox churches have been converted into either mosques or museums there remain a number of sites of both historical and religious significance to the Christian faith. The Apostolos Andreas Monastery situated in the North’s Karpaz peninsula remains an extremely important holy site to the Cypriot Orthodox Church. Once known as the ‘Lourdes of Cyprus’ it is still visited by Greek Cypriots from the South taking a pilgrimage. In fact, the monastery is highly prized by both the Greek and Turkish Cypriots as a place of votive worship and at the beginning of 2013, the Northern Cypriot authorities announced a five-million-euro restoration project, funded solely by the TRNC (Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus).
Perhaps in parallel, if not greater religious importance to the Greek Cypriot community is St Barnabas Monastery located near to the ancient ruins of Salamis. St Barnabas was one of the early followers of Christianity and founders of the independent Greek Orthodox church. He is also the patron saint of Cyprus – not surprising given that he is said to have personally witnessed a healing miracle worked by Jesus in Bethesda.
St Barnabas converted to Christianity shortly after, distributing his inherited wealth to the poor and spending four decades spreading the word of Christ across Europe until he was captured, stoned to death and burned in around AD 75 – Christianity wasn’t quite so popular in the pre-Constantine Roman Empire.
The frescoes (painted murals) in the church tell the tale of how the remains of St Barnabas came to be discovered. The church now serves as an icon museum, the monastery houses an archaeological collection and the chapel allegedly holds the tombed remains of the saint himself. This is said to be the original place where the body of St Barnabas was found although the architecture in its current form only dates back to the 18th century.
For an earlier piece of architecture and one of the finest examples of the first great Christian basilicas (churches) built and still standing in the North is the Antiphonitis Church. Located in the Kyrenia mountain range this church dates back to the 12th-century Byzantine rule. Whilst much of the church is now in ruins, its rather unusual gothic-style architecture and well-preserved frescoes are well worth a visit, not to mention the fabulous views of the North’s coastline.
Indeed, there are many fine examples of Christian places of worship that remain in the North and thanks to the secular way of life here these beautiful buildings continue to be prized, at the very least for their architectural and historical importance.