Cyprus - Travel Update (2/2): Old Religions

Warning: We are off-topic with this travel post. Nothing in here about mortgage securizations or .tv names or startups. This is about the language of religion and its implication for foreign policy, so feel free to skip! Old Religions

The second thought I want to share about Cyprus was triggered by Easter.

Greek Orthodox services, particularly around Christmas and Easter, (which, to my family's dismay, are about the only times I make it to church) are extremely elaborate affairs with multiple priests, cantors and a choir all playing a role. The language is Byzantine Greek, the churches and the vestaments are ornate, there is incense and flowers and, overall, it is a very rich visual and auditory experience.

Even in Manhattan where I went last night to the Archdiocesan Cathedral of the Holy Trinity, you feel like you are stepping back in time.

Easter is particularly important in the Orthodox church (much more so than Christmas) as it reflects the resurrection of Christ which represents the defeating of death.

"O death, where is thy sting? O grave, where is thy victory?"(Corinthians)

is from the Easter Service . It is suitably visually dramatic as well. At midnight the church lights go dark and from inside the alter a single candle is lit and passes through and lights up the whole congregation and the priest comes out and declares "Christ has Risen"

So this is a long-winded way of saying that it is a very effective medium to communicate a message.

Church in New York

Outside the Church (74th Street between 2nd and 1st Avenue)

This brings me back to a point I have been wanting to make for sometime after my trip to Cyprus. This Christmas, my father dragged me, kicking and screaming, to a 6:00am service on Christmas Day at the church of St. John in medieval Nicosia which is where the Archbishop of Cyprus presides.

It is a small church, build in 1662, with beautiful 18th century painted walls and ceilings. Everything aspect of stepping back in time that I felt last night in church in Manhattan was magnified x 10 in a church like that within the medieval walls of Nicosia.

Church of St. John

Church of St John

Picture from dolanh via Flickr Creative Commons license

The aspect that struck me most, though was the sermon. The north of Cyprus has been occupied since 1974 by Turkey and the Church has been one of the most hawkish organizations in asking for its return. The basic theme of the sermon was: "We will not rest until we can, once again, freely perform our religious services and pay respect to our ancestors in the churches and cemetaries of our fathers and forefathers."

Now, I tend to be a pragmatist in foreign affairs and a message like this coming from a man on the street would sound like silly bluster to me.

This Christmas for the first time, however, I was able to see it through the eyes of the Church.

The Cypriot Orthodox church is the oldest Christian church in the world (something like 1,700 years old). In medieval times, in both Cyprus and Greece, under 300 years of Ottoman rule, the Church was the only institution that survived and transmitted Greek language and culture to the present day. It is not an exaggeration to say that the Greek Church is responsible for Greeks retaining a cultural heritage that draws back in an uninterrupted manner to Classical times.

That is when I realized that, to the Church, 30 years is *not* a long time. It is a blink of an eye. So of course that is how they are going to speak. And in that context, it makes perfect sense that you are not going to give up after 30 years.

And what is perhaps sobering is that a lot of the Abrahamic religions (Christianity, Islam, Judaism) are going to be the same way, and so language that sounds overly dramatic when read on the USA Today website on a laptop computer ("We will defeat the Crusaders, just like we did in the 15th century" for example) sounds perfectly reasonable in an 500 year old church, mosque or synagogue.

It is tough to see this state-side, because the US is a bit ahistorical and focused on the future and on tomorrow, but it is definitely the state of most countries and peoples and that fact should play an important part in thinking through foreign policy and communication.

In any case.. these are not our problems for today, so whether you are celebrating Easter, Passover or absolutely nothing at all, this is perhaps a more general spring-time message to leave you with:

Do not fear death and may there be light in your life

Posted on April 8, 2007 and filed under Personal.