ONE of the premiere comedy spots in the world lies in an imposing neo-Byzantine building in the old town of Nicosia, Cyprus, bearing the unjustly sonorous title ‘The Archbishopric.’ It is where the Archbishop, the head of the comedy club known as the Cyprus Church resides, and where the bishops and other higher clergy convene to ensure a ceaseless supply of spiritual hilarity. The heart of the Cyprus Church may seem an unlikely place for top-class comedy, but anyone who has witnessed any of the latest ecclesiastical acts, whether live or on television, will agree that it’s the best show running in the Eastern Mediterranean, on par with South Park, Eddie Murphy’s Delirious, or the best clips from The Daily Show.
The two most gifted comedians by far – each claiming a unique and inimitable style – are Bishop Nikiforos of Kykkos and the new Archbishop Chrysostomos II, formerly Bishop Chrysostomos of Paphos (hence the chummy nickname ‘O Paphitis’). Their fans so revere their comic routines that they stoop to kiss their hands and refer to them as “Your Arch-Holiness”. Their black robes and beards, which merge hippy mellowness, big city sophistication, and Arthurian wizardry, have taken the comedy fashion world by Orthodox storm.
But they are not without individual flair. The Kykkos Bishop plays on his short stature and facial malleability by going for the cartoon look. With a beard dyed white to enhance the effect, Kykkos Nikiforos will occasionally burst into spectacular tantrums of melodramatic hell-and-brimstone rants, a sidesplitting show of gaudy fury that reminds one of a cross between Elmer Fudd and the Tasmanian Devil. The taller Paphos Bishop, on the other hand, aims for the Casa Nostra look. Wearing sunglasses with semi-dark lenses and a closely cropped beard, the church father diplomatically delivers his comedy with the measured manner of the smooth mafia man assuring the jury he has committed no foul play, although his varicose cheeks and coy smiles warms him to the audience in a way no underworld man has ever managed to do.
To appreciate the humor of these men, or even to recognize it as humor, one must have a bleak undercurrent running through one’s soul, a sardonic ingrained sense of life’s perpetual hypocrisy, a capacity to chortle over corruption, lies, and double-dealings – especially when they are painted with a transparent veneer of Christian brotherly love and piety – and a rejection of, or at least resignation over, the belief that God can be found in the gold-coated altar of the Church. In short, you need to be able to chuckle over the following phrase (recently uttered by Kykkos Nikiforos about the Paphos Bishop and Limassol Bishop): “Now it’s my turn to fry the fish on the lips of my two holy brothers.” This direct translation from Cypriot into English does not convey the essence of the sentence, which can be better summed up as: ‘Now it’s my turn to give those two sons of bitches hell’.
Several years ago it became apparent that elections for a new Cyprus Archbishop would have to be held because the resident Archbishop was becoming increasingly incapacitated due to advanced stages of Alzheimer’s. That was when the comedy began. It is very amusing – assuming you have a dark sense of humor – to observe men, who are supposed to reflect brotherly love and humility and who are accustomed to having the backs of their right hand kissed dozens of times each day, practice treachery, character assassinations, slander, lying and cheating on a daily basis, all motivated out of naked ambition.
For centuries politicians have looked to Machiavelli’s The Prince to for practical ethics-free advice on how to win and maintain political power. After the latest electoral victory that landed the Bishop of Paphos in the Archbishop’s throne, clergymen seeking ecclesiastical glory would benefit from diligently studying his methods and tactics. Unfortunately, the Paphos Bishop has not yet summed up all that he “over so many years and with so much affliction and peril, ha[s] learned and understood” as Machiavelli noted in his letter to Lorenzo de Medici. But one need only review his unabashed rise to the throne to glean the tactical insights gained from a life tirelessly and unswervingly dedicated to the immoral pursuit of ecclesiastical power.
The turn of the millennium is a good place to start. In 2000, the Paphos Bishop was reported to have spearheaded a campaign to mar the growing reputation of Bishop Athanassios of Limassol – who had recently returned to Cyprus after years of monastic living in Greece’s Mt. Athos – by accusing him of homosexuality. The charges were dropped when court evidence demonstrated that two archimandrites had promised a car and cash to a key witness if he would testify that Bishop Athanassios was gay.
With his soft-spoken manner and commitment to the teachings of Orthodox Christianity, the Limassol Bishop stood in stark contrast to most of the other bishops, especially the man he had replaced – Limassol Bishop Chrysanthos – who had been forced to step down in 1998 after reports emerged that he had been involved in stealing more than £6 million from at least four groups of investors, including an Ecuadorian charity for underprivileged girls. In May 2004 Chrysanthos’ car was destroyed by a bomb blast, a common form of communication between underworld acquaintances.
To counter the rising popularity of the Limassol Bishop, the Paphos Bishop helped to promote Nikiforos – the Abbot of the Kykkos monastery – to the more powerful position of Bishop in early 2002, without forcing him to surrender his leadership at the wealthy and powerful monastery. But the divide and rule plan seemed to backfire on him when the Kykkos Bishop began using the vast sums of monastery money available to him to start garnering popular and political support. From then on until the Archbishopric elections, the Paphos Bishop and the Kykkos Bishop would become arch-nemeses, providing endless colorful material for the island’s church correspondents.
In 2005 the Paphos Bishop said that the Kykkos Bishop was on a power trip and regretted backing him for the bishopric. He then said Nikiforos’ family had “bad DNA.” In response, the Kykkos Bishop said it was with “pain of heart” that he heard the “negative and offensive remarks by my beloved brother.”
“I am proud of my DNA and my Greek, Christian origin,” he said, and then, as if to prove just how Christian his DNA was, he added, “to the raised fist I extend a brotherly hand.”
The Paphos Bishop later insinuated that the Kykkos Bishop was schmoozing journalists and others to ensure their electoral support: “Every weekend 10 or 15 buses go to Kykkos monastery and they eat and drink for free.”
The Kykkos Bishop responded to the allegation in an October 27, 2005 statement from the “Press Office of the Honorable Kykkos Bishop,” stating that the Paphos Bishop was “continuing his favorite tactic of abusing and slinging mud at all of his brothers in Christ who do not agree with his arbitrariness and illegalities… [and of] abusing, undermining, defaming, and slinging mud at the Kykkos Bishop to lower his honor and esteem.”
In the same press release, the Kykkos Bishop accused the Paphos Bishop of denying allegations that he had recently paid £100,000 to a company to defame him and provoke an “ethical assassination,” adding that the man best suited to be Archbishop would “be decided soon by the people, whom you so fear and hold in contempt… Clear skies, Holy Paphos, are not afraid of lightning.”
In another instance, the Kykkos Bishop accused the Paphos Bishop of “hypocritical and pharisaic attitudes.”
The Paphos Bishop who had supported holding elections the previous summer, probably because he thought he had a good chance of winning, now opposed them, as he would likely be outvoted by both the wealthy and multi-party backed Kykkos Bishop as well as the popular Limassol Bishop.
The Kykkos Bishop, along with the Morphou and Trimithounta Bishops, then traveled to Istanbul to complain that the Synod had decided to not hold archbishopric elections so long as the incapacitated Archbishop was still alive. After their departure the Paphos Bishop told reporters that the three rebel bishops had not respected the majority of the Holy Synod – the decision-making body of the Church. The Paphos Bishop then paid a visit to the Patriarch in Istanbul in order to “hear what the other Bishops had told him” and to respond to their positions, “which were mistaken of course.”
In November the Kykkos Bishop again flew to Istanbul, this time with the Morphou Bishop, to deliver an epistle to the Patriarch regarding the elections. Reporters asked the Paphos Bishop, as he was heading into the Archbishopric to convene a Synod meeting, whether he would wait for the two bishops, who were still in transit at the time. “If they are coming, we will wait for them,” he replied, although when asked again while walking into the building, he added, “If they make it in time…”
It was finally decided, after a Greater Synod meeting in Geneva, to hold elections on September 24, 2006. With its cornucopia of funds, the Kykkos Bishopric conducted the most flamboyant campaigning. During one of his rallies, three jumbo screens flanked the stage, while a giant poster of a ridiculous majestic-looking Kykkos Bishop hung from the ceiling. “Ladies and gentlemen, let’s welcome the next Archbishop of Cyprus!” the speaker urged, prompting cries of “Worthy is he!” from the audience.
“O Greek Cypriot nation,” boomed the Kykkos Bishop’s voice as he stepped up to the pedestal. “Tonight, I feel a captive of your immense love.” In another of his speeches he said that those who question the work of the Kykkos monastery and the Kykkos Bishop (he often refers to himself in the third person) are “deeply shrouded in darkness” and “parked in a basement of filthy mud.”
During a television interview someone asked the Kykkos Bishop whether it was true he had dyed his beard white. “Yes, it’s true,” he replied. “I dyed my beard. But what matters is what a person has inside him, not the exterior.”
The archbishopric elections in Cyprus are a complicated messy affair, involving several rounds of voting and two separate ballots, one of representatives elected by the population and the other of 33 ex officio clerics chosen by the Synod (the Paphos Bishop, who was the acting head of the Church, had the final say on who they were). To become Archbishop one must get an absolute majority (over 50 percent) in both ballots.
The Limassol Bishop reportedly won 48 percent of the popular vote, the Kykkos Bishop 42 percent, and the Paphos Bishop less than 6 percent. Despite garnering over 40 percent of the vote, this was a humiliating defeat for the Kykkos Bishop, whose liberal donations had won him the support of the best-supported football clubs, many TV stations, most newspapers and every major political party – including the biggest one in Cyprus, the pseudo-communist AKEL, which absurdly proclaims itself as Marxist-Leninist.
The Kykkos Bishop at once complained about voter irregularities and illegalities, claiming the voting results were invalid. But the Synod tossed all his complaints, prompting him to rage with classic Kykkotic poesy about the “consummation of a crime” and the “slaughter and rape of truth.”
Just before the vote, the Paphos Bishop urged people to cast their ballot “so that we may show, here and abroad, that we are a democratic nation and respect one another.” One might think, if he took his own words seriously, that he would have nobly bowed out of the race after having only secured less than six per cent of the public vote. But not only did he not bow out; he began to proclaim his impending victory. When asked over the radio who he thought would win the election, Bishop Chrysostomos of Paphos – the man who had received less than six percent of the public vote – replied, “the next Archbishop will be called Chrysostomos.”
The Paphos Bishop has always been a master at the art of diplomatic bullshit, capable of the most outrageous and brazen assertions (in the thick of the campaign mudslinging he said that the bishops’ relationship was “one of collaboration, teamwork and mutual respect), but he occasionally speaks with a frankness that reveals just how his astute Machiavellian mind works. Take for example his response when a reporter asked him to clarify what he meant after he asserted that in the end his rivals might back him “for the good of the Church.”
“I live in this country and know how Cypriot society works,” he said. “I wasn’t born yesterday, nor did I drop out of the sky.”
And the way Cypriot society works, as anyone who has lived in Cyprus for some time knows, is that it is often the least popular candidates who, through deals and alliances, catapult to the top. The current president of Cyprus, Tassos Papadopoulos, is a prime example.
Ironically, because no one had an absolute majority in the two ballots, the Paphos Bishop was in a strong position. Both of his rivals needed his votes to knock the other out. So the night before the final day of voting, the Paphos Bishop struck a deal with the Limassol Bishop to “trade votes” in the two ballots to proceed to the final round of voting, knocking the Kykkos Bishop out of the election. And so it was.
The alliance, which a Kykkos spokesman referred to as a “dark conspiracy to oust the Kykkos bishopric,” prompted the outraged Kykkos Bishop to order his representatives to leave the Archbishopric, despite the fact that they were still supposed to remain and vote in the final round for either the Limassol Bishop or the Paphos Bishop.
With the Kykkos voters gone, the Limassol Bishop was guaranteed victory. Outside the Archbishopric hundreds of his supporters were already celebrating. But as acting head of the Church, the Paphos Bishop called an extraordinary session of the Holy Synod, where it was decided to postpone the election until 4pm the next day, despite the fact that the move violated the Church charter.
The news prompted an outcry among the gathered Limassol Bishop supporters outside, who accused the Paphos Bishop of hijacking the election by illegally postponing the vote to give him time to bribe the Kykkos Bishop for his support. The Paphos Bishop defending the postponement by claiming it would have been “unfair” to hold the vote without the participation of the Kykkos Bishop supporters, adding that he saw no harm in waiting another day.
Later that afternoon the eliminated Kykkos Bishop made his famous brotherly declaration that it was now his turn to “fry the fish on the lips of my two holy brothers” and said that they must now come to him and meet his demands if they desired his votes.
The Kykkos Bishop, who had staged a massive electoral campaign and had just hours ago stormed out of the Archbishopric in a fury, then made a statement that should go down as one of his all time memorable quotes: “However I state that I felt a relief that I did not pass to the third stage, because I will remain here at the Kykkos Monastery, which I consider the highest battlement from which I can continue my work towards my community and my country.”
The next morning the Paphos Bishop traveled to Kykkos monastery and signed an agreement with the Kykkos Bishop in which he promised to make certain changes in the Church (“for the good of the church” of course) in exchange for the votes of the Kykkos supporters.
The double-alliance – first with his one rival, then with the other one whom he had ousted – worked. During the vote later that day, all of the Kykkos supporters and clerics dutifully obeyed their command and the Bishop of Paphos, the man who had received less than six percent of the popular vote, became Archbishop Chrysostomos II.
I was at the Archbishopric at the time the news was announced. The bulk of the people outside were supporters of the Limassol Bishop, who has always drawn the most devoted following of any of the bishops. It was not a cheerful scene. The enthronement ceremony was postponed for a week for fear of public unrest.
In the most violent incident, a group encircled a black Mercedes transporting the Morphou Bishop and began pounding upon the hood and roof, furious at what they saw as a clerical betrayal of the Limassol Bishop. On emerging from his car, the shaken Morphou Bishop told reporters: “They may be faithful towards one person, but they are not faithful to the Church or to Christ.” But to the crowd, it was the clerics and the representatives who had been unfaithful to the popular will. As the churchmen nervously shuffled away out of the backdoor entrance, the crowd booed them to cries of “unworthy, unworthy” and “shame on you… you have put the Church up for sale!” Relatives had to hold back one young man who was openly weeping, his fists clenched, yelling at one of the clerics that he would bury him alive.
But most of the Limassol Bishop’s supporters were more subdued. Some even went so far as to consider the Paphos Bishop’s victory as God’s punishment of their beloved elder, who though the most spiritual of all the candidates, proved in the end he too was not beyond forming alliances and horse trading votes, which he had claimed he would not do (but in fairness to him, he did not betray the public that had voted for him, because it was his clerical votes, not his Elector votes (popular votes) that he traded).
In his usual serene manner, the Limassol Bishop accepted the results without protest. Several weeks before the election he told me him during an interview that he personally did not desire to become Archbishop, but if that was what the people wanted, then he would become Archbishop. All church candidates say that, of course, but he is the only one who may have even partially meant it. When you are not so wolfish yourself, and you find yourself in pack of wolves, it is better to remain where you are rather than become the pack leader.
After being elected, the new Archbishop thanked his “Holy brothers, especially the Kykkos Bishop and the Limassol Bishop because… I was elected with their votes.” He later claimed that the document he signed at the Kykkos monastery was non-binding and merely consisted of “suggestions”. And he managed to hold a straight face upon saying “the people have the last word in the church elections.”
I was recently granted a half hour interview with ‘His Beatitude’ (when you are Bishop you are His Arch-Holiness, when Archbishop you are upgraded to the blissful rank of Beatitude) in his office at the Archbishopric. He told me that all the recent strife and confrontations amongst the bishops were an unfortunate result of the pre-election climate. “But now nothing divides us; all unites us.”
I asked him if he would step down in five years, a claim he made after his meeting with the Kykkos Bishop at the monastery. He skirted the issue with what should go down as one of his all time memorable sentences: “I had absolutely no ambition to become Archbishop.”
“I am purely interested in bringing about changes in the Cyprus church, which it’s my responsibility to serve, he continued. “And I believed it would be difficult for any of the other candidates to make those changes.”
It was the perfect response. By that line of logic, all the shrewd maneuverings, the manipulation, the alliances and betrayals… it could all be justified as the regrettable but necessary means through which he could become Archbishop and bring about those important changes that only he was capable of doing*.
Journalists are generally fond of Chrysostomos II because of his availability to the press (when Bishop he always answered his cell phone) and his readiness to answer questions that other more self-important bishops might find insulting or disrespectable.
The Archbishop was unfazed when I asked him about an incident that took place years ago in his Paphos district in which a lorry driver, allegedly acting under his direct orders, was caught stealing sand from a turtle nesting ground to transport to a golf course on former church property.
“Yes, they accused me that I had taken the sand.” He started to laugh. “And I enjoyed [the accusation] and said, ‘Yes, I took it, and anytime I want to I’ll go and take it’. But I had absolutely no involvement, that’s why I enjoyed saying I did.”
Corruption is an ugly thing when it wears a serious face, but when it chuckles and delights over itself, it can be almost charming. “Tell me Your Beatitude,” I asked, “what specific agreement did you make with the Limassol Bishop in the second round of voting when you both eliminated the Kykkos Bishop and advanced to the final round?”
Chrysostomos II paused, and then, with a coy smile said, “We agreed to leave it to God.”
*One of the first actions Archbishop Chrysostomos II took upon assuming his office was to bury the heart of Archbishop Makarios, which had been sitting preserved in a jar of formaldehyde on display in the Archbishopric since 1977. Not a bad start.
- Walking the Cyprus E4 (Part I)
- Orthodoxy in Kenya (Part I)
- The Virgin Palin
- Walking the Cyprus E4 (Part III)