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Fact Sheets - Religious Groups in Cyprus
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The Armenian Community

The Armenians have a long and noteworthy history in Cyprus that dates back as early as the 6th century. About 3.500 Armenians currently live in the Republic of Cyprus. According to the Constitution (Article 2 § 3), the Armenian-Cypriot community is recognised as a religious group, while the Western Armenian language is recognised and protected by the Cyprus government as a minority language, according to the provisions of the European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages.

Represented by an elected MP, Armenian-Cypriots live mostly in the urban areas of Nicosia, Larnaca and Limassol and through their churches, schools, clubs, radio programme, monthly newspapers and websites try to preserve their very rich cultural heritage, language and religion.

"I am proud to be an Armenian and proud to be an Armenian-Cypriot. I look forward for the day when the whole of our island is free and a fair solution is found to the political problem". Vartkes Mahdessian, current Parliamentary Representative of the Armenian community in Cyprus.

BYZANTINE PERIOD [330 - 1191 AD]

After the division of the Roman Empire, Cyprus came under the Eastern Roman Empire, known as Byzantium, with Constantinople as its capital.

Beginnings of the Armenian community in Cyprus

There are records of individual Armenians associated with Cyprus as early as the 5th century BC, but the history of the community on the island became clearly defined within the context of the Byzantine Empire. The second half of the 6th century saw the appearance of an Armenian community on the island of Cyprus: numerous Byzantine historians record the resettlement of as many as 3.300. They mention the “cultivation of land” or the “defence of the Empire” as reasons for such a policy.

There were many instances of resettlement throughout the history of the Byzantine Empire. A large number of Armenians found themselves as far away from their territories as in Macedonia, Sicily, southern Italy, Thrace, along the coastal towns of the Black Sea, the Aegean and Crete.

It was Justinian I [Emperor, 527-565] who had initiated this policy. By centralising administration, and by legislating and codifying new laws, he had succeeded in replacing the Latin culture with that of the Greeks. By doing so, he had established the foundations of a new sensibility. The multicultural environment encouraged many Armenians to seek their fortune in an empire that was offering considerable opportunities. Armenians, noted for their martial skills, entered the army. Many rose to positions of power, as generals, as governors and, in the later centuries, as Emperors. A few were sent to serve in Cyprus: Alexius arrived on the island in 868 AD as a general to keep the Arabs at bay; Basil was sent in 968 AD as governor, as was Levon between 910-911 AD and Duke Vahram in 965 AD.

Emperor Heraclitus, said to be have been of Armenian origin, was particularly ruthless in his resettlement programme, which took place during the early years of the 7th century. Of greater interest to the community in Cyprus was his attempt at bridging the rift between the Armenian Apostolic Church and the Greek Orthodox Church by introducing the doctrine of Monotheletism, which he tried to work out on the island but with little success. In 973 AD, with the arrival of Catholicos Khachig I, a Bishopric was established in Nicosia, reflecting the importance of the existing Armenian community within the Diaspora.

The Armenian Church during the Byzantine period

Transferring the capital from Rome to Byzantium (Constantinople) was not simply an administrative decision on the part of Constantine the Great [306-337 AD]. Amidst the radical changes, Christianity found itself recognised as the favoured religion of the Empire.

Since the Kingdom of Armenia had already accepted Christianity as its official religion in 301 AD, it was able to participate more readily in the cultural and social changes. It retained its ties with Syria, especially with its intellectual centre at Edessa, until the arrival of the Arabs in the region during the 7th century. It also opened up to the intellectual ideas that were taking shape in Constantinople, and continued to do so until the capital’s fall in the 15th century.

Interestingly, the Armenian Church secured its own position in the critical debates that raged primarily between the Antiochene and Alexandrian schools of thought on matters regarding the doctrine, the liturgy and the Creed, forging its own distinct identity in matters pertaining to theology. There are records of Cypriot and Armenian clergy sitting alongside each other at the numerous and significant early Church Councils, held in various cities around the eastern Mediterranean.

Close ties between Cyprus and Lesser Cilician Armenia

Following the death of the prophet Mohammed in 632 AD, expeditions which he had planned in the hope of extending the frontiers of Islam were realised by his followers. In Cyprus, Byzantine rule was constantly interrupted by the Arab military expeditions, which lasted until 965 AD. Armenians were living in strategic positions across the island, and helped in the defence of the land. A more militant Islamic force threatened the Byzantine Empire and its Christian neighbours with the appearance of the Seljuk Turks in Asia Minor. Many Armenians subsequently sought refuge in the southern province of Cilicia with its mountainous landscape and sheltered harbours, making it a land of strategic importance. With its geographical proximity to the island of Cyprus, this new kingdom, known as Lesser Cilician Armenia, established close ties with the Kingdom of Cyprus. They became inextricably connected through a series of royal marriages.

End of Byzantine Rule

Isaac Comnenus, a grand nephew of the Byzantine Emperor Manuel I, was appointed governor of Cilicia. He was captured by Armenians and sold to the Order of the Knights Templars. Once freed, he crossed over to the island of Cyprus in 1184 with forged letters and proclaimed himself “Emperor of Cyprus”, having married the daughter of Thoros II, the Armenian “Lord of the Mountains”; he did bring Armenians with him from Cilicia. He made himself very unpopular and was unable to fight the crusading army which had landed on the island in 1191. His brief rule ended with the arrival of the monarch Richard I of England. Comnenus died in captivity in 1195.


LATIN PERIOD: Lusignans, Genoese & Venetians [1191-1570]

Cyprus passes into the hands of the Lusignans

The presence of Christians in Cyprus whose allegiance was to Rome began officially with the arrival, in 1191, of the crusader King of England, Richard I. His marriage to Princess Berengaria of Navarre is said to have taken place in a chapel within Limassol Castle. The best man at the wedding was Leo I “Lord of the Mountains”, who was to be the future King of Lesser Armenia. His own coronation at Tarsus was acknowledged by Latin monarchs, the Papacy, the Byzantine Emperor and the head of the Eastern Churches.

Richard left soon after, having sold the island to the Order of the Knights Templars. In May 1192, the Templars asked King Richard to buy back the island, but Richard induced Guy de Lusignan to acquire the island, thus marking the beginning of Lusignan rule in Cyprus.

The crusades that had already begun in 1096 gradually involved monarchs and churchmen throughout Europe, whose shared ideology was to liberate the Holy Land from the Muslims and to safeguard the routes taken by pilgrims to and from the Christian holy shrines.

The land routes were through the southern regions of Asia Minor and along the coast of the Levant. The sea route was by way of Cyprus. These territories had been under Byzantine rule for centuries and, by the Third Crusade (1189-1192), numerous kingdoms and principalities with close Latin connections had come into existence in the eastern Mediterranean. One was the Kingdom of Cyprus, and another was the Kingdom of Lesser Armenia at Cilicia. A series of political marriages between these ruling families of the two kingdoms forged close ties for two centuries. Therefore, it was not surprising to see a steady rise in the number of Armenians on the island throughout this period, especially in the main towns of Nicosia and Famagusta.

With the fall in 1291 of Acre, an important Christian centre on the eastern Mediterranean coast, the Latins were forced to leave their estates in the Levant and to settle elsewhere. Many, including some Armenians, arrived in Cyprus, where they integrated readily.

With the fall of Jerusalem in 1267, the King of Cyprus had adopted the title “King of Jerusalem”. By 1375, the Kingdom of Lesser Armenian had lost much of its power. Leo V, the last King of Lesser Armenia, fled to Cyprus and from there he continued his journey to France, where he eventually died and was buried in 1393. His title and rights were transferred to the Lusignan King of Cyprus and Jerusalem, James I at the Cathedral of St Sophia, Nicosia, in 1396. With the rise of the Genoese and the Venetian mercantile Republics, the reasons for being in the eastern Mediterranean seemed purely to safeguard the trading centres and take all the wealth that was on offer. What had begun with zeal and high ideals, in the cause of Christianity, fell apart into a struggle for power and territorial gains. Not only was Jerusalem lost in 1267, but Constantinople was soon to fall in 1453. In 1458, Byzantine Princess Helena Palaeologina died and Queen Charlotte of Cyprus, daughter of the Lusignan King John II, ascended into the throne and married Louis of Savoy. Although the rightful heir to the throne, she was soon forced to abdicate by her half-brother James II in 1467. After numerous attempts to regain the kingdom, she died in 1487 at the age of 43 and was buried at St. Peter’s basilica in Rome. Written on her tomb is the inscription “Charlotte, Queen of Jerusalem, Cyprus and Armenia”. The “Lion of Armenia” is still worn by her descendants.

The Venetians take over Cyprus

The Republic of Venice, through diplomatic craft, succeeded in inducing James II to marry a Venetian noblewoman, Caterina Cornaro. Within a year of the marriage, both the King and their baby son died, thus ending the Lusignan line in Cyprus. After 15 years, the Republic of Venice forced Caterina to surrender her position as Queen, and in 1489 she left for Venice, marking the end of the Lusignan rule in Cyprus. She spent the rest of her life, until her death in 1510, on her estate at Asolo. Written on her tomb at SS. Apostles Chapel in Venice is the inscription “The mortal remains of Queen of Cyprus, Jerusalem and Armenia”.

The Venetian colonial rule lasted from 1489 to 1570. It was a mercantile culture. Armenian merchants mingled with other traders, at Famagusta, the unofficial seat of power and the greatest emporium in the eastern Mediterranean.

OTTOMAN PERIOD [1571-1878]

Sultan Selim II of Turkey [1566-1577] brought Cyprus under the Ottoman rule. The Venetian hold on the island was destroyed following the siege of Nicosia in 1570, and that of Famagusta in 1571.

The tolerance shown to all Christians, save those of the Roman Catholic faith, was beneficial for the Armenians as well. Official legal documents issued by the Sultan at the Ottoman court in Constantinople assured the Armenian-Cypriot community of its rights to two important properties. The 1571 firman enabled the congregation to resume religious services at the church of St. Asdvadzadzin [Virgin Mary] in Nicosia, while the 1642 firman exempted the paying of taxes for St. Magar [Blessed] monastery in the Kyrenia district.

St. Asdvadzadzin’s church in Nicosia was built in 1308. It was the principal convent on the island, run by the Benedictine nuns of Notre Dame de Tyre. Some members of the Order came from distinguished Armenian families, such as the Abbess, Princess Fimie, daughter of King Hayton I of the Cilician kingdom. The community continued to use it as its principal church until the December 1963 communal troubles, when Armenian-Cypriots found themselves displaced from their ancient quarter. With the Turkish invasion of July 1974, it fell within the occupied territory.

Records of travellers visiting the island after 1571, Ottoman archival material dating from 1710, and historical documents written by Greek-Cypriots, suggest that the community during this period of rule remained small. They also reveal that the community was mostly centred in Nicosia, in Famagusta, at St. Magar monastery and the nearby villages, with only a few families residing in Larnaca.

St. Magar monastery, situated on the northern mountains of Kyrenia, remained a haven for visitors, mostly churchmen and pilgrims on their way to and from Jerusalem and the Holy Land. One such visitor was Hovsep Shishmanian [1822-1888], better known by his literary name ‘Dzerents’. Although an official doctor sent by the Ottoman government from Constantinople to a hospital in Nicosia in 1875, he spent much of his time at the monastery, stimulated by the visible outline of the distant Taurus Mountains, writing a historical novel, titled “Toros Levoni”, set in the times of the Cilician Kingdom of Lesser Armenia.

There seems to have been greater wealth throughout the 18th century amongst the members of the community and the Church, even though the administration had become more oppressive with its constant demands of high taxes. Extensive repairs were carried out at the monastery. Lands, watermills and houses were purchased at the nearby village of Kythrea and further south at Dheftera.

The Office of the Armenian Representative Mr. Vartkes Mahdessian, in cooperation with the Armenian Prelature of Cyprus, organised for the first time after 33 years a pilgrimage-visit to the occupied Armenian monastery of Sourp Magar on May 6th 2007. A second visit was organised on May 10th 2009 and a third one on May 9th 2010 with the same success.

The Magaravank (Armenian Monastery) is the only Armenian monastery in Cyprus and, along with the church of Virgin Mary in occupied Nicosia, they are the most important Armenian church monuments on the island. They were occupied in 1974 during the Turkish invasion and ever since they remain at the mercy of nature, silent, ruined, desecrated and deserted, awaiting their rightful owners to return.

The planning phase of the restoration project of the old Virgin Mary church and Armenian complex, sponsored by UNDP-ACT, was completed in December 2008. The actual works, which will be completed in two phases, began in October 2009 and will eventually include the full restoration of the church, the Prelature and the three school buildings. The restoration of the Armenian church together with several other cultural heritage sites across the island was undertaken by UNDP-ACT, because of their historical and cultural significance for the island and its communities.

19th century documents reveal a vivid picture of the community. A local bishop Dionysus in 1817 is seen collecting manuscripts, official documents and government decrees, as well as preparing a list of all the Armenian properties on the island; an affluent and ostentatious merchant, Mr. Sarkis, is seen at ease with government officials and foreign dignitaries; a certain gentleman, Diran ‘Effendi’, distinguishes himself as a successful advocate and an eccentric; an Armenian priest is hanged in 1821 alongside the Greek Cypriot leaders and churchmen during the unrest caused by the Greek War of Independence; an Armenian Dragoman [official translator] was arrested and hanged in 1829, to give the message that the governor would not tolerate insurgencies; a primary school for boys is established in Nicosia in 1870; and a local Greek newspaper reviews visiting groups of Armenian actors from Constantinople performing in Turkish to audiences in Larnaca and Nicosia.

A fire at the Armenian Prelature in 1860 may have robbed the community of important papers. Nevertheless, by far the most important church record of the last days of Ottoman rule for the Armenian-Cypriot community is still in existence. It is an independent census carried out by Hovhaness Kahana Shahinian. He began work in 1877 and continued to record what amounted to 152 members of the community during his eight year term in office. With the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869, Cyprus found itself once again along the main trade route in the eastern Mediterranean. The prospects of the community were to change inevitably, for the better.

THE BRITISH PERIOD [1878-1960]

Cyprus leased to the British

The Christian communities on the island welcomed the transfer which took place officially in July 1878. A provisional Legislative Council which had established itself by 1882 in Nicosia allowed greater freedom for the inhabitants, and a greater say in the execution of the laws. The numbers of the Armenian-Cypriot community increased steadily from 179 in the 1881 census to 517 in the 1901 census.

A certain Apisoghom Utudjian was invited from Constantinople by the British Governor of Cyprus as an official translator of the Ottoman State papers, and as an interpreter to the newly formed British administration until 1919. His son, Hrant Utudjian continued in the profession during the period when the island was annexed in 1914, and fully declared a British Crown Colony in 1925. Another governmental interpreter was Boghos Odadjian, also from Constantinople (died 1891).

The first Armenian refugees arrive in Cyprus

Armenian families, mostly from the eastern provinces of the Ottoman Empire began to arrive hoping to begin a new life under the British administration. The persecution and massacre of Armenians in the Ottoman Empire had begun, albeit sporadically. The first refugees arrived in 1895, mostly at the harbour of Larnaca. However, great numbers left soon after for countries in the Near East and Europe.

For the few who remained on the island, community life continued to revolve around the church, whose role was to sustain the faith, articulate the doctrines and provide a context where members could find an outlet in self-expression and cultural activities. Vahan Kurkjian, better known by his literary name ‘Pagouran’ established an Orphanage for the Hamidian massacres’ orphans, which operated in Nicosia and, during the summer, the St. Magar monastery between 1897-1904.

Despite the poor conditions on the island with the droughts and flood, the number of new arrivals steadily increased with families settling in the main towns of Nicosia, Larnaca, Famagusta, Limassol and even in the distant town of Paphos. Armenian doctors, dentists, veterinary surgeons, civil servants, bank clerks and interpreters had begun to fill positions within the new British administration.

More refugees arrive in Cyprus

Another wave of refugees came between 1909-1910, following the Adana massacre, and started building St. Stephen’s church in Larnaca, whose construction was completed in 1913. Further upheavals and massacres under Kemal Ataturk during the formation of a modern Turkish Republic brought thousands of Armenians once again into Larnaca harbour between 1915-1923. Some were allowed off the ships to take refuge on the island, where most found lodgings in the small coastal town. Temporary schools catered for educating the young, while the men began to explore the possibilities of establishing business, mostly as craftsmen, traders and merchants. Nicosia offered greater work prospects and financial opportunities, and many moved from Larnaca to settle in areas where Armenian families had been living before the arrival of the British. There was also an influx of Armenians at Amiandos village, where the asbestos mines offered stable employment.

About 1.300 Armenians made their home on the island. Many were skilled workers. The standard of craftsmanship was very high. Tailors, shirt and dress makers, milliners, silk and cotton merchants, carpet and rug weavers, furniture makers, shoemakers, gold, silver and copper smiths, comb-makers and tinkers filled the main shopping centres and bazaars. In time, a few set up their own factories, manufacturing clothes, soap and leather. There were quite a few printers and photographers. Others were in the food business, introducing the making of the nowadays very popular lahmadjoun, lokmadhes, gyros and koubes and dried apricot. New to Cyprus were the numerous watchmakers, car mechanics and upholsterers.

Knowledge of several languages, as well as administrative skills, enabled many of the younger generation to acquire positions in the civil service, private companies, law courts, the police force, and banks. There was also a steady rise in the number of professionals, mostly men, working throughout the island as doctors, psychiatrists, dentists, accountants, advocates, architects, engineers, teachers and journalists, often setting up their own clinics and offices. Some individuals acquired positions within the government services.

Yet the Armenian community remained a silent minority, without representation in the Legislative Council, which consisted of only Greek-Cypriot, Turkish-Cypriot and British members. The only representative as such, was a “mukhtar” who was the certifying officer for the Armenian quarter in Nicosia (Karaman Zade).

By the end of the British rule, affluent Armenian-Cypriots had begun to invest in land on an extensive scale, to venture in property development and to contribute significantly towards the strengthening of the island’s economy.

Religious diversity within the Armenian-Cypriot community

The traditional Armenian [Oriental Orthodox] Church continued to be a gathering point for the majority of the Armenian-Cypriots, not only at St. Magar Monastery in the Kyrenia district and St. Asdvadzadzin in Nicosia, but also at St. Stepanos in Larnaca, built in 1913, at St. Kevork in Limassol, built in 1939, and at the restored medieval church of St Mariam Ganchvor [The Caller] within the enclosed walls of Famagusta since 1936. In 1926, local churches finally came back under the jurisdiction of the Catholicosate of Sis-Cilicia: in 1930 the See had moved from Sis in Turkey to Antelias in Lebanon. With the exception of Larnaca (where Protestants have their own cemetery), Armenian Apostolics, Armenian Catholics and Armenian Protestants are all buried in the Armenian cemeteries of Nicosia (1877, 1931, 1998), Larnaca (1923), Limassol (1960) and Famagusta (1967). The historic Armenian cemetery in Nicosia, near Ledra Palace Hotel, was restored in 2009 thanks to the efforts of Armenian MP, Mr. Vartkes Mahdessian.

The Armenians who followed the Roman Catholic faith were approximately 50 in number. They attended the Latin mass at the numerous Catholic churches around the island. Instances of Armenians attending the Greek-Orthodox and the Maronite church ceremonies were often through ties in marriage.

The majority of the non-conformist Armenian refugees, upon arrival, established close ties with the Near and Middle Eastern Armenian Evangelical Church Association. Their chapel in Nicosia was built within the city walls and accommodated approximately 200. A resident minister visited all the families around the island.

Education

Elementary schools were built in the precincts of the local churches, as was the tradition throughout the Diaspora. As the number of pupils grew, extensions were built and facilities modernised, resulting in the improvement of the quality of education, under dedicated teachers. This was a great step from the much earlier forms of tutorial education in private homes. However, the tradition of a single teacher who supervised the educational needs of small communities in places like Famagusta and the villages of Amiandos, Lefka, Lefkara, Skouriotissa and Agros continued. There were also children of families working and living at the monastery, whose education was supervised by the Church.

The primary school in Nicosia was established 1921 by the Artin Bey Melikian family, to be extended in 1938 by the Dikran Ouzounian family. The Larnaca primary school, first established in 1909, was extended in 1926 to accommodate the very large influx of refugees. A school was also built in the church precinct in Limassol in 1951, replacing the first school there, established in 1928. A small school was also set up in Famagusta in 1927 and operated until 1974.

Secondary education could only be provided at the Melkonian Institute. Property was bought on the outskirts of Nicosia by the wealthy Krikor and Garabed Melkonian brothers of Egypt, and work began in 1924. Orphaned boys and girls, as well as those who had been isolated from community life as a result of the massacres, were offered education and boarding facilities. It also accommodated Cypriot Armenians who wished to continue their education in Armenian. The institute attracted distinguished members of staff, including writers, painters, musicians, historians and scientists, who prepared students for further education at universities and colleges abroad. Its library was exceptionally rich and contained a number of invaluable manuscripts and old newspapers.

The cultural life of the community

The Armenian clubs, often situated close to the churches and schools, provided a meeting point. They allowed members of the community to relax after a day’s work, exchange ideas, hold cultural and sporting events and social functions such as balls and bazaars. The reading rooms housed very fine libraries. They received newspapers from Armenia and the Diaspora, enabling Armenian-Cypriots to keep in touch with the cultural life of Armenians around the world. A considerable number of individuals set up photographic studios around the island, especially in Nicosia and Limassol. Their stills, mostly of Cyprus life and landscape, were reproduced as postcards. They have acquired archival value in the island’s cultural heritage. By far, the most active and far reaching of the arts was in the field of music. Numerous individuals participated in the musical life of the island by teaching instruments and singing and performing in concerts, as well as joining choral, operatic, theatrical and dance groups.

During this period, certain publications that narrated the history of the Armenian-Cypriot community, in the context of the history of the island, were written in Armenian and were richly illustrated and documented. Vahan Kurkjian’s “Gibros Geghzi” [Island of Cyprus] was printed in Nicosia [1903] by the author at his Orphanage press. An extensive report on the community was published in Paris [1927] in an article by Arshag Alboyadjian in the annual “Amenoun Daretsouyts” [Yearbook of Everything] by Theotik. “Hay Gibros” [Armenian Cyprus] was written by the Coadjutor Catholicos Papken Gulesserian and printed in Lebanon [1936]. “Hishadagaran Gibrahay Kaghouti” [Recollections of the Armenian-Cypriot Community] was written by the local Bishop Ghevont and printed in Lebanon [1955]. They remain invaluable source material, as do the so far ten auto-biographies and biographies of Armenian-Cypriots.

End of the British Period

By 1960, the number of Armenians living in Cyprus was approximately 3.600. This included Armenians who had sought refuge from wars in Palestine [1947] and Egypt [1956]. The British military presence on the island and the state of emergency during the armed struggle for the island’s Independence (1955-1959), coupled with the growing civil tension within the cities, caused unrest. By the time Zurich-London Treaty was signed in 1959, giving disproportional rights to the Turkish minority, the Armenian-Cypriot community found itself in disarray. Many had left for Britain, Soviet Armenia, Canada, the USA and Australia, reducing the number of the community to approximately 2.000.

THE REPUBLIC OF CYPRUS [1960 - to the present]

The hoisting of the Cyprus flag on the roof of the House of Representatives on 16th August 1960 symbolised the island’s Independence, bringing centuries of successive foreign rule to an end.

The Armenian community was recognised by the Constitution as one of the 3 religious groups. Furthermore, as Christians, the Armenians, alongside with the Maronites and Latins, opted to be part of the Greek-Cypriot community and were given the right to elect a Representative in the Greek Communal Chamber every five years (after it was abolished in 1965, the Representatives became Members of the Parliament).

The momentary peace enhanced prosperity throughout the island, although the application of the Constitution seemed complex and would very soon prove to be unworkable.

Displacement of Armenian-Cypriots

Khoren I, the Cypriot-born Catholicos of the Great House of Cilicia, was the last distinguished guest to visit the old Armenian quarter of Nicosia in 1963. The fighting that broke out that same year between the Turkish-Cypriot and Greek-Cypriot communities had tragic consequences, resulting in the displacement of both Greek-Cypriots and Armenian-Cypriots living in the old city. A similar situation took place in old Famagusta. The Turkish-Cypriots isolated themselves from the normal life of the Republic and withdrew into numerous enclaves around the island, where the authority of the government was not respected. As a result, a United Nations contingent arrived to man the green line - a neutral zone - which ran through the heart of the old Armenian quarter of Nicosia, where Armenians had lived for centuries. The area was first supervised by British troops and from 1964 by troops of the United Nations. The late Father Der Vazken Sandrouni played a significant role during this transitional period in rehabilitating the community. He helped raise funds and supervised the building projects, in addition to his work as the head parish priest until his death in August 2005.

The Greek Orthodox Church, under Archbishop Makarios III, gave the use of a church in Ayios Dhometios, and later on a site in the Acropolis suburb of Nicosia for a new Armenian church to be built. The community received substantial financial assistance from the state. Donations also arrived from numerous international church organisations towards the building of a new church.

The consecration ceremony of the new church of St. Asdvadzadzin was held on 22 November 1981. It was attended by Archbishop Makarios III, His Holiness Catholicos Khoren I and Coadjutor Catholicos Karekin II of Cilicia, later to become the Catholicos of Sis [Antelias- Lebanon], followed by that of Etchmiadzin [Armenia]. They were accompanied by the then Bishop, Zareh Aznavorian, a gifted composer, writer and translator of the Bible into modern Armenian. Also present was Dr. Antranik Ashdjian, the parliamentary Representative of the Armenian community from 1970 to 1982. In 1984, the new Prelature building was erected. Bishop Zareh’s bust was erected outside the church in 2005, as was a marble khachkar (cross-stone) in 2001, celebrating the 1700th anniversary of Christianity in Armenia, which was inaugurated by Catholicos Aram I. The Armenian Genocide monument was also erected in the church yard between 1990-1992.

By 1974 the political situation in the Republic of Cyprus had moved into a new phase. The 1974 coup d’état by the Greek Junta had ousted President Makarios. The subsequent military invasion by Turkey had forced the inhabitants to become refugees in their own country. The occupying army created a partition across the island from east to west, creating the ghost city of Famagusta and a divided capital of Nicosia. Under military threat, Armenian-Cypriots, along with Greek-Cypriots, fled to safer regions in the south, leaving behind their homes, business establishments, places of worship and lands.

Education

In 1972, the new elementary school in Nicosia was inaugurated by Archbishop Makarios III and Catholicos Khoren I, in the presence of Armenian MP Dr. Antranik L. Ashdjian. Thereafter, elementary schools in Nicosia, Larnaca and Limassol were renamed “Nareg” after the distinguished 10th century poet-priest Krikor of Nareg, whose statue was placed outside the Nicosia school in 1991. A single headmaster, as of 2009 Mrs. Vera Tahmazian, supervises all three primary schools. They are supervised by the Ministry of Education and Culture of Cyprus and the Armenian Schools’ Committee, and therefore the standard is in line with the rest of the public schools around the island. With funding by the government, school buildings in Larnaca and Limassol were re-built and their new premises were inaugurated in 1996 and 2008, respectively.

The Melkonian Educational Institute (MEI) was the largest boarding school for Armenians in the Diaspora. Established after the generous and benevolent donation of Egyptian-Armenian tobacco trading brothers Krikor and Garabed Melkonian, it was initially an orphanage for Armenian children who survived the 1915 Genocide. Gradually, it became a world-famous secondary school. The school with its buildings, the benefactors’ mausoleum, the seven Armenian history pillars’ statues, its football and basketball fields, the small forest (planted by the first orphans in memory of their loved ones) and a large plot of land, is managed by the AGBU.

Over the years, about 2.500 Armenians coming from over 20 countries have graduated from the MEI, mainly from the Middle East, Eastern Europe and North and South America. For over 7 decades, the MEI was an “ambassador” of Cyprus and its problem to the world.

The MEI played a crucial role in the educational, cultural and athletic life of the Armenian youth. In 2001, the school celebrated its 75th anniversary amidst great pomp and celebrations, both in Cyprus and abroad. Unfortunately, with a decision of the AGBU Central Board of Management, the MEI was closed in June 2005. As a result, a 3-year Gymnasium section was formed in September 2005 at Nareg Nicosia, providing further education for Armenian children in Cyprus.

Thanks to the efforts of the Armenian Representative, Mr. Vartkes Mahdessian, in conjunction with the MEI Alumni Cyprus and the help of the Minister of Interior, Mr. Neoclis Sylikiotis, a preservation decree was issued on 2 March 2007, which declared 60% of the school grounds, as a “National Heritage Site”. Between September 2007 and December 2009, the old MEI buildings housed Aglandjia Gymnasium. Today, the fate of the Melkonian and its rich library is still uncertain.

National Guard

Before 2008, Armenians, Latins and Maronites were not obliged to serve a military service (with the exception of the period 1989-1993, under the Vassiliou administration). The Council of Ministers’ decision number 65.732/19.06.2007 approved a legislation obliging Armenian, Maronite and Latin community youth to serve a military service, starting from July 2008.

Armenian-Cypriots in government

The three minorities in Cyprus namely Armenians, Maronites and Latins are recognised by the Constitution of the Republic of Cyprus (Article 2 § 3) as “religious groups” and, according to a referendum held on 13 November 1960, opted to belong to the Greek-Cypriot community. The members of these groups enjoy the same benefits as other community members and are eligible for public service and official positions of the Republic.

The Law on Religious Groups (Laws 58/1970, 38/1976 and 41/1981) states that each religious group is represented in the House of Representatives by an elected Representative.

The participation of the Representatives, who act as a liaison between the community and the state, has a consultative nature and its duration is 5 years. The Representatives enjoy the same privileges as other MPs, they participate in the Parliamentary Education Committee and they attend the plenary meetings of the House.

Although they can express their views on matters relating to their community, the Representatives do not have the right to vote. So far, the following have served as Representatives: Berj Tilbian (1960-1970), Dr. Antranik Ashdjian (1970-1982), Aram Kalaydjian (1982-1995), Bedros Kalaydjian (1995-2005) and Dr. Vahakn Atamyan (2005-2006).

The current Representative of the Armenian community in Cyprus is Vartkes Mahdessian who was elected to the position on 21 May 2006. As well as electing their own Representative, Armenian-Cypriots also participate in the presidential, parliamentary and municipal elections of the Republic.

As of March 2008, the President of the House of Representatives is also of Armenian origin, Marios Garoyian, who has also been the President of DI.KO. party since September 2006.

A few Armenian-Cypriots hold posts in government ministries and in the island’s diplomatic missions. Hagop Keheyian is Consul General for Brazil, Garo Keheyian is Vice-Consul for Brazil, Peggy Kalaydjian is Honorary Consul General for Bangladesh and Roupen Kalaydjian is Honorary Consul for Bangladesh. James Giragossian is the First Secretary of the Cyprus Embassy in Rome, while Sevag Avedissian is the Second Secretary of the Cyprus Embassy in Moscow.


Relations between the Republic of Cyprus and the Republic of Armenia

The formation of the Republic of Armenia in September 1999 brought 77 years of Soviet rule to an end, paving the way for the establishment of relations between the new republic and Cyprus. Parliamentary delegations to and from Armenia since 1994 have resulted in the signing of significant bi-lateral agreements and in the creation of a forum for further discussions and co-operation between the two governments. In May 1995, the Armenian Ambassador to Greece also became Ambassador to Cyprus, establishing formal ties between the two republics.

In 1988, conflicts in the mountainous Nagorno-Karabakh district [Artsakh to the Armenians] resulted in a war between the republics of Armenia and Azerbaijan. The fighting stopped in 1994. Members of the medical community of Cyprus played a significant role in providing services on location, offering medical aid. In January 1992, the Republic of Nagorno-Karabakh was proclaimed, with Stepanakert as its capital. Following the December 1988 earthquake in Armenia, the Republic of Cyprus was one of the first countries to send relief in the form of medicine, doctors and financial aid.

Life within the community

A variety of activities continue to create a living culture and sustain a sense of identity for the community. Armenian-Cypriots have their own radio programme and newspapers, as well as a variety of associations and clubs.

The daily radio programme on the Cyprus Broadcasting Corporation in Armenian includes extensive interviews, news coverage as well as a wide musical selection. The pioneering work of setting up and shaping the programme in 1953 began by the pianist and lace-maker, the late Marie Kazandjian, together with the visual and performing artist and writer, Sebouh Abcarian. Currently, the sixty minute Armenian daily programme is mostly produced and presented by Sissi Torossian, the Armenian literature programme is produced and presented by Violet Tashdjian and the news bulletins are edited by Arto Tavitian and Vahan Aynedjian. The announcers are Nazig Gostanian, Nayiri Mouradian and Diana Petrosyan. The programme is broadcasted every day by CyBC Radio 2 between 17:00 and 18:00.

The two Armenian monthly newspapers at present are “Artsakank” [1995] and “Azad Tzayn” [2003], providing local, national and international news, primarily in Armenian, although certain columns are printed in Greek and in English. The Armenian Church in Cyprus brings out its own monthly bulletin “Keghart” in Armenian [1997]. There is also Gibrahayer, an English-speaking e-magazine that circulates every Wednesday [1999]. Since 2006, the Armenian Representative’s Office circulates the “Lradou”, a tri-monthly comprehensive newsletter that informs the community about all the activities of the Representative and updates community members regarding the laws of the Republic of Cyprus that relate to Armenians. Furthermore, the Office of the Armenian Representative organises cultural events (dance performances, concerts etc) and lectures/discussions on a variety of issues.

The local associations function in all towns from their own premises throughout the year. A.G.B.U. [Armenian General Benevolent Union] [1911 Larnaca, 1913 Nicosia, 1936 Limassol] A.Y.M.A. [Armenian Young Men’s Association] [1934, Nicosia], Armenian Club [1931, Limassol], L.H.E.M. [Limassol’s Armenian Young Men’s Association] [1996, Limassol] and Nor Serount [2006, Nicosia] with their affiliated organisations, provide a wide variety of cultural, social and charity activities, catering for all interests. AYMA has its own football team, while AGBU and Nor Serount each have a futsal team (Ararat and Homenmen, respectively).

The Armenian Prelature also organises spiritual events and discussions, often with the participation of clergymen from Antelias. Genocide Commemoration events are organised every year. Finally, it is customary for the Representative to deliver a speech in the House of Representatives during the session closest to 24 April; in 1975, the Republic of Cyprus became the second country in the world (and the first in Europe) to recognise the Armenian Genocide.

The cultural life within the community is enriched with its writers, painters, photographers, dancers, sportsmen and others sharing their knowledge and skills within the community.

Beyond the bounds of community life

Certain individuals have left their mark in the history of the island. The late Sona Yeghiayian was the longest serving director of St John’s Ambulance Brigade. Her pioneering work in this field, both in towns and villages, was acknowledged on her retirement by the government of Cyprus. She was featured in the publication of Cypriot women pioneers, “Trailblazers” by D. Lasson [1995]. The late Kevork K. Keshishian was the author of books on the history of Nicosia and Famagusta, and of Cyprus’ best- and longest- selling tourist guide Romantic Cyprus, published in 17 editions from 1946 to 1993 and translated into Greek, French and German.

The late Vahe Nigoghossian was the first to import the cinemaclassica projector to the island in 1937. He was honoured in 1995 for his continuous contribution to the Cyprus film industry. Takouhy Devledian is the longest serving member of the Cyprus Guides’ Association, while Artin Anmahouni is the oldest serving scout in Cyprus. Between 1960-1962, the first General Scout Commissioner of Cyprus was the late Hagop Palamoudian. The late Vahan Bedelian, considered to be one of Cyprus’ best musicians and composers, set up his band in 1926. Sebouh Abcarian has been the conductor of the renowned Kohar symphony orchestra since its establishment in 2000. Another well-known Armenian-Cypriot is the late Shahe Guebenlian, who served as journalist in Cyprus and the UK for nearly 6 decades.

The late George der Parthogh, journalist and photographer, had contributed to the world of reporting since the 1950s. He was featured in “Pioneers of Cypriot Photojournalism”, edited by Dr. Andreas Sophocleous, Ministry of Education and Culture, 2000. He was also the co-founder, publisher and editor of the English newspaper, “Cyprus Weekly”, established in 1979. His son, Masis der Parthogh, editor and Shavasb Bohdjalian, publisher co-founded the weekly “Financial Mirror” in 1993.

Contribution to the cultural life of the island The Armenian community of Cyprus receives generous funding from the state. This enables the organisation of concerts, dance performances, art and photographic exhibitions, as well as literary events. The Armenian Prelature has allocated space within its premises (Utudjian Hall) to encourage cultural events, such as the annual Autumn Book Exhibition. The Middle/Near East Armenian Research Centre (est.1996 by Vartan Malian) houses a reference library and archival material in its Nicosia premises.

The Pharos Trust (est. 1993 by Garo Keheyian) is a cultural institution with its premises in Nicosia. To date, it has organised many national and international cultural events. There is also the Kalaydjian Foundation (est. 1984), which runs the Kalaydjian Rest Home for the Elderly, providing care for Armenian and Greek-Cypriot elders.

A comprehensive anthropological study of the Armenian community in Cyprus was carried out by Susan Pattie-Chilingirian in the 1980s. Her book, “Faith in History”, written in English, was published in 1997, and remains an important source material. In 2009, researcher-scholar Alexander-Michael Hadjilyra published the booklet “The Armenians of Cyprus” (also available in Greek under the title “Oi Armenioi tis Kyprou”), which provides a general and updated outline of the community, and John Matossian published a comprehensive book titled “Silent Partners: The Armenians and Cyprus, 578-1878”. Also published that year, a collective volume titled “The minorities of Cyprus” has some sections dedicated to the history of the Armenian community of Cyprus. Over the last decade, comprehensive articles on the history of the community have also been written by Dr. Antranik Ashdjian, Vartan Tashdjian and George Zeitountsian and others.

Compiled and updated by Ruth Keshishian [2002] from the article “The Armenian Community of Cyprus” [1995] by Kevork Keshishian for the Encyclopaedia of the Armenians in the Diaspora, Yerevan Armenia and a further update by the Armenian Representative’s Office in 2010.

Acknowledgement to all members and friends of the community in Cyprus and abroad who helped in providing invaluable material.



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