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The Maronite Community

The Maronites got their name from Saint Maron (350-410 AD) who lived near Mount Taurus situated in the region of Apameus in "Syria Secunda", an administrative division of the Byzantine Empire. Great crowds were attracted by Saint Maron’s gift of healing and many of them joined him, seeking to lead a life of prayer and mortification under his spiritual guidance. St Maron’s sainthood became known throughout the Byzantine Empire. St John Chrysostom sent him a letter around 405 AD expressing his great love and respect, and asked St Maron to pray for him. After his death in 410 AD, a church was built and dedicated to his memory. His disciples formed the nucleus of the Maronite Church and they founded a monastery named after him. This monastery grew rapidly and became the head of a body of monasteries which spread over Syria and Lebanon. "Maronitism" meant the Christian movement inspired by St Maron, his disciples and his monasteries which were a source of edification for many of the faithful.

The history of the Maronite community in Cyprus goes back many centuries. Maronites moved to Cyprus from the ancient territories of Syria, the Holy Land and Lebanon in four principal migrations between the eighth and the thirteenth centuries. Tradition narrates that the first group of Maronites immigrated to Cyprus simultaneously with the Maronite migration to Lebanon in the eighth century (Cirilli 189: 5). This exodus was caused mainly by the Islamic conquest and the inter-Christian rivalries between the Jacobites (i.e. Syrian monophysites) and the Byzantines, which inflicted violence against the Maronites (Dib 1971: 51-52). The second major migration followed the destruction of Saint Maron's Monastery on the Orontes River in Apamea around the year 938 A.D., which led to the transfer of the Maronite patriarchal residence to Mount Lebanon (Dib 1971: 52-53; Assamarani 1979: 17). Little information is available to confirm or refute the chronicle of the two migrations.

The third Maronite migration occurred upon the purchase of Cyprus by Guy de Lusignan towards the end of the twelfth century (Cirilli 1898: 6). The fourth occurred at the end of the thirteenth century with the defeat of the Crusaders in Tripoli and the Holy Land (Dib 1971: 65, 77).

Available historical documents confirm that the Maronites were an active community in Cyprus prior to 1192 AD. However with the Latin Rule of Cyprus (1191-1571), they must have sustained many natural and man-made disasters, as evidenced by the fact that between 1224 and the Ottoman conquest of 1571, the number of their villages was reduced from 60 to 33 (Palmieri 1905: 2462). The reasons behind the degeneration of the Maronite presence in Cyprus could be many including the greed and oppression of other religious orders of the time, plus the recurring natural and epidemic disasters (Cirilli 1898:12-13, Assamarani 1979: 25-29, 47).

With the Ottoman conquest of Cyprus, the Maronites had 33 villages and their Bishop resided in the Monastery of Dali in the district of Carpasie (Palmieri 1905: col. 2462). By 1596, about 25 years after the Ottoman conquest, the total number of Maronite villages had been reduced to 19 (ibid. 1905: col. 2462, Dib 1971: 177).

The Ottomans, after annexing Cyprus, imposed increasingly high taxation on the population, including the Maronites whom they treated badly, accusing them of treason, ravaging their harvests, abducting their wives and forcing their children into slavery (Cirilli 1898: 20). Many Maronites had died during the defence of the island, many more had either been massacred or taken as slaves, many others had dispersed throughout the island to escape persecution, and those who remained in their villages found themselves in a pitiable condition (Cirilli 1898: 14-15). Consequently, a group fled to Lebanon and another group accompanied the Venetians to Malta (Dib 1971: 177). All this led to the reduction in the Cypriot Maronite population and subsequently in the number of their villages, as well as the transference of the seat of the Maronite Church from Cyprus to Lebanon.

By 1636, the situation for the Christians in Cyprus had become intolerable and the conversions to Islam began. "Since not everyone could stand the pressures of the new situation, those unable to resist converted to Islam and became crypto-Christians. They were called Linobambaci - a composite Greek word that means men of linen and cotton, a metaphorical term referring to the dual nature of their religious beliefs. The Maronites who adopted Islam lived mainly in Louroujina in the district of Nicosia. (Palmieri 1905: col. 2468). However, these Maronites who had converted in despair did not fully denounce their Christian faith. They kept some beliefs and rituals, hoping to denounce their 'conversion' when the Ottomans left. For example, they baptized and confirmed their children according to Christian tradition, but administered circumcision in conformity with Islamic practices. They also gave their children two names, one Christian and one Muslim (Hackett 1901: 535; Palmieri 1905: cols. 2464, 2468).

Under Ottoman rule (1571-1878), and especially from 1750 onward, the Maronite Church in Cyprus was under the jurisdiction of the Greek Orthodox Church. In 1840, however, the Maronite Patriarchate in Lebanon was successful in obtaining a firman removing the Maronites from the rule of the Orthodox bishops and restoring them to the rule of the Maronite bishops. The French Consul serving in Cyprus at that time had greatly assisted in the efforts to obtain the change.

In a census carried out in 1891, the Maronites were estimated at only 1.131 out of 209.286 Cypriots and were mostly in four villages (Hill 1972: 383, Hackett 1901: 528). This constitutes a massive reduction in population when, according to the historian Palmieri, there was, in the thirteenth century, an estimated number of 50.000 Maronites living in sixty villages. The regression of the Maronite community had begun with the Latin Rule and received its final blow under the Ottoman Rule.

Under British Rule (1878-1960), the Maronite community saw a great economic and cultural development, together with an increase in population. They consolidated their religious and political rights, and built their own churches and schools. With the first census carried out by the newly established Republic of Cyprus in 1960, there were approximately 2.752 Maronites living in Cyprus, mainly in the four remaining Maronite villages of Kormakitis, Karpashia, Asomatos and Agia Marina, but also in other areas of Cyprus.

Following the Turkish invasion of Cyprus in 1974 and the partition of the island, the inhabitants of these villages, who were mainly an agricultural community owning considerable areas of land, were displaced. The four villages, which are now practically unpopulated but for a few elderly persons, are all located in the occupied northern part of Cyprus and are facing annihilation, as are other villages and towns in the north, because of the laws imposed by the Turks on the right of return and the right of land ownership.

The Maronite community of today

At present the Cyprus Maronite community is a very small community forming an integral part of the people of Cyprus but, at the same time, continuing to exist as a separate community. The Maronites who now live in Cyprus consider themselves of Lebanese origin and they are Christian Catholics. They have a Maronite Archbishop who is elected by the Holy Synod of the Maronite Church in Lebanon and confirmed by His Holiness the Pope. Although the Maronites are educated in Greek schools and speak fluent Greek, they have their own Arabic language, they practice their own Catholic Maronite religion, they use the Aramaic language in their liturgy and they have their own culture and customs.

Before the invasion, the Maronites had their own elementary schools in all their four villages, supervised by the Ministry of Education and Culture. Although the analytical programme of the schools was similar to that of the Greek Cypriot elementary schools, the pupils were given additional lessons in subjects such as scripture, church hymns, the Arabic language, traditional songs and dancing. These schools were open to all communities, but the pupils, who attended them, as well as the teachers, were all Maronites.

After the 1974 invasion and the displacement of the Maronite population of the north, the Maronite pupils attended Greek Cypriot elementary state schools as well as private elementary schools in the southern part of the island. The government contributed towards their fees. The government has now built an elementary school for the Maronites in Nicosia, which opened this September. For secondary education the government pays the school fees of the Maronites students who wish to attend Catholic schools instead of the state secondary schools.

The Maronite community today numbers around 6.000 scattered all over the island. Because of their dispersal the Maronites are rapidly being assimilated and absorbed into the wider Greek Cypriot community, mainly through inter-marriage. Their return therefore to their villages is essential if they are to preserve their identity.

Political rights

According to official government statistics, Cyprus has a population of 802.500 of whom 80.1% are considered to be members of the Christian Greek Cypriot community, 10.9% belong to the Moslem Turkish Cypriot community, and 9% are foreigners. While the majority of the Greek Cypriot community are members of the Autocephalous Greek Orthodox Church of Cyprus, 1% are actually members of the Maronite, Armenian and Latin churches, who under the provisions of the 1960 Constitution, had to chose which of the two larger communities they would like to join. The Maronites (along with the Armenians and Latins) opted to belong to the Greek Cypriot community to which, owing to similar religious, linguistic and cultural bonds, they were much closer.

The Maronites, according to article 109 of the Constitution of the Cyprus Republic, were represented in the Greek Communal Chamber by a member elected by their own community. As a result of the inter-communal clashes between the Greek and Turkish Cypriots in December 1963, the Greek Communal Chamber was abolished in 1965. Since then the Maronite community has been represented in the House of Representatives by an elected representative.

The House of Representatives, through its appropriate parliamentary committee, before taking any legislative measure on any subject relating to the Maronite community, and any organ or authority of the Republic, before exercising any administrative authority on any subject relating to the community, has to consider the views of the Representative of the Maronite community.

After the Turkish occupation, the Turkish authorities issued certain regulations governing the living conditions of Maronites. These regulations, however, were gradually revoked and more stringent restrictions were imposed relating to freedom of movement and communication with the free areas of Cyprus, adequate medical care and job opportunities. Furthermore, there is no secondary education in the occupied areas, and in general living conditions are below standard. Continuous representations were made to the Turkish authorities on behalf of the enclaved Maronite population by the leaders of the community and UN officials but unfortunately without any success. On the contrary, instead of the restrictions being slackened, they became tighter and the majority of villagers, mainly the youth, have been obliged to leave their homes and come to the free areas as refugees. The number of persons left behind, has steadily decreased from 2.000 in December 1974 to 137 persons today, who are of an average age of 70 and over.

For several years after 1974, the Maronites from the occupied areas lived in refugee camps, in rented houses and in houses of relatives and friends living in the south, as did Greek Cypriot refugees from the north. They remained for a long time without churches and schools. With Government assistance they now have enough churches in Nicosia and Limassol and one elementary school in Nicosia.

In losing their villages the Maronites lost their social nucleus from which for centuries they drew their strength to maintain their religion and their identity. Now all their villages are under Turkish occupation and control and Maronites must pay the required crossing fees to visit their villages for limited periods. In spite of these difficulties, however, the Maronites are working hard to maintain their religion, language and culture.

Main source:

The Journal of Maronite Studies



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