The Greek Church of Cyprus under Latin Rule

CyprusThe Greek Church of Cyprus under Latin Rule

Lecture by Chris Schabel (University of Cyprus)

Given at the University of Toronto, April 16, 2013

According to most Cypriot historians, the conquest of the island by Richard I in 1191 ushered in an era of “dark centuries” for Greek Orthodox Church. Greek writers depicted the period when the Lusignan Dynasty ruled the island (1192-1474) as one were the local Christian community had to resist the oppression from the Roman Catholic church, even seeing the Ottoman conquest of Cyprus in 1571 as a liberation.

In a lecture given at the University of Toronto, Chris Schabel challenges these views, and finds for most of the period of Latin rule over the island, relations between Roman Catholic and Greek Orthodox was much better than previously thought.


The conquest of Cyprus during the Third Crusade did bring much upheaval to the island, and Greek church did not emerge unscathed. Some property was confiscated for secular rulers, although it appears that no churches or monasteries were taken away. Schabel notes that a more serious problem for the Greek church was that it lost its biggest benefactors – the Byzantine Emperors and local Cypriot elites, who would have provided them with donations.

Schabel points out that in the early years the situation for the Greek church on Cyprus was not as dire as previous historians have suggested. While a Latin church was established on the island, it was quite poor by Western European standards, and did not make any efforts to subjugate the other Christian sects.


It was not until the 1220s that the Roman Catholic church sought to exercise greater control of the Greek Orthodox church, and efforts were made to negotiate an agreement. The Catholics wanted to downsize the number of Greek bishops on the island from 14 to 4, which was the same number of Catholic bishops assigned to Cyprus. Moreover, the Greek bishops would be considered to be more like assistant bishops to the Catholic ones.

The Catholic church also demanded that Greek bishops be required to take an oath to their church, something that the Greeks objected to. Another controversial issue was the use of leavened or unleavened bread as the Eucharist during church services (See our feature on Bread in the Middle Ages). Some members of the Greek church were vehemently opposed to the Roman Catholics using unleavened bread, and in the year 1231 13 monks from the monastery at Kantara publicly accused Catholics of being heretics for using this practice. When they refused to withdraw their accusations, Cypriot authorities had them executed.

From the 1220s to 1250s the situation between the Latin and Greek churches remained strained, as some Greek bishops refused to accept the Catholic demands – they would go into exile to other Byzantine lands. Eventually, however, agreements were made – while there would only be four Greek bishops on Cyprus, those already in place would be allowed to serve in that position for the rest of their lives.

A key date in the process of reconciling the Greek and Latin churches was 1260, when Pope Alexander IV issued the Bulla Cypria. It guaranteed the Greek church on Cyprus a level of independence, and stipulated that only the Pope could depose a Greek bishop. Schabel describes this as “the Magna Carta of the Greeks,” which made sure that the Latin authorities would have little influence on Greek churches and monasteries. The only outbreaks or religious violence that would occur after the Bulla Cypria was implemented occurred in 1313 and 1360 – in both these cases newly arrived Papal Legates tried to impose new rules on Cyprus, which led to riots until the Papal charter was reaffirmed.


Schabel finds that as the situation calmed, the mistrust and differences between the Greek and Latin churches faded. In 1308, records indicate that congregations were gathering together to hear mass, and that in the fourteenth century one can find examples of both mixed marriages and cases were Greek churches were allowing to have Latin chapels inside them. Instead of being a period of religious turmoil, Cyprus saw accommodation and assimilation during the period of Lusignan rule over the island.