The gospel on the island of Cyprus
Driving across this semi-arid country, one can still come across the idyllic scene of a shepherd leading a mixed flock of longhaired sheep, barely distinguishable from the longhaired goats mingled among them.
Acts 13 records that the first ever missionary outreach was prayerfully sent from the young church in Antioch to the island of Cyprus. In obedience to God’s command to take the gospel to the ends of the earth, the apostle Paul and his Cypriot-background teammate, Barnabas, sailed to Cyprus and travelled across the island sharing the gospel of Christ.
Despite some serious opposition, they were greatly encouraged by the first ever turning from paganism to faith in Christ of a ruling authority, the Roman proconsul at the city of Paphos.
In the centuries following, Byzantine Christianity overtook pagan religions. Even today the Cypriot Archbishop of the Greek Orthodox Church proudly carries a special staff to mark the fact that Cyprus was the first nation officially to become Christian.
Traditional church life became the framework for most Cypriot communities. This has continued until the present. Much ceremony and tradition have been incorporated, along with the gospel of grace, such as the kissing of icons and prescribed fasting and prayer to saints.
Turkish Ottoman rule for around 300 years resulted in about 17 per cent of the Cypriot population confessing Islam. Great Britain took authority over Cyprus, against Ottoman debt, in 1878, bringing it into the British Commonwealth. English became a major language on the island, besides Greek and Turkish.
The Republic of Cyprus was granted independence in 1960. Incidents between the Greek Orthodox and Turkish Muslim Cypriot communities then created much tension. In 1974 the movement for unification with Greece achieved a short-lived coup. This resulted in invasion by Turkey, which occupied the northern 40 per cent of the small island.
UN troops remain between armed forces on the divided island until the present. The Republic of Cyprus entered the European Union in 2004, despite continuing Turkish occupation.
In recent years, regular crossing points have opened up and many cooperative bi-communal activities occur, but no long term agreement for reunification of the island has been achieved.
The intertwining of religious and political Cypriot identity seems to be both a blessing and a curse. Today, great respect for the Bible continues among the Greek Orthodox majority.
Although church attendance at the archaic Greek church liturgy is mainly for family events and major holidays, every school child in the Republic knows the biblical account of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ to save sinners. But, sadly, few understand the scriptural call for a personal relationship with the Saviour.
Cypriots are often open to discuss spiritual matters on a personal level. In fact, they seem to feel freer to share thoughts with someone outside their own tradition. Some are open to Bible study, but few will easily stand up to family and communal pressures against attending a different church or religion.
Heretical cults such as Jehovah’s Witnesses and Mormons actively knock on doors and distribute literature on the seafront. So, the majority of the Cypriot population is rightly cautious about accepting tracts from strangers.
Yet, Jehovah’s Witnesses have been so persevering and spiritual hunger is so great that, over the past couple of decades, this Scripture-twisting cult has built up a significant following. They can boast the largest Greek Cypriot membership after the Orthodox Church.
Effectively sharing the gospel with Cypriots requires investing time in long term, caring relationships. English is widely spoken and hospitality highly prized. The relaxed culture of exchanging visits over coffee or meals provides very many natural opportunities for outreach.
The greatest need in Cyprus is for Christians committed to regularly sitting down with neighbours and acquaintances, to listen to them, pray for them and be ready to give the reason for ‘the hope that is within’.
When Cyprus joined the European Union, new doors opened up. Cypriots generally, and especially the younger generation, admire anything European and have become eager to understand new ideas.
So now is the ideal time for Christians to come and live on this Mediterranean island, to share the good news! Any EU citizen can freely live and work in Cyprus.
Gospel opportunities are not only among Cypriots; third world nationals study, work and holiday on the island. Cyprus has become very diverse. As a crossroads of the world, gospel opportunities extend far beyond the local population to people who often have little or no Christian witness in their homeland.
Among the evangelical churches, believers from Cyprus and every corner of the globe join together in worship on Sundays, at 10.30am and 7.00pm, at the International Evangelical Church (IEC), on the corner of Stylianou Lena and Thoukydides Streets, Larnaca (tel. 99-384541).
The daughter IEC congregation meets on Sundays, at 10.30am at 352 Ayiou Andreou Street, Limassol (tel. 99-384742). They seek to reach out to their communities during the week.
These works in Larnaca and Limassol are slowly growing. There is a real need, however, for the steady presence of mature spiritual leaders and their families to consolidate and expand the work.
‘Therefore, pray the Lord of the harvest to send out labourers into his harvest’ (Contact: [email protected]).