The Maronite Community
The Maronites belong to the Eastern Christian cult of the Catholic Church which is based in Antioch. They were named after Saint Maron (350-410 AD) who lived in the region of Apamea in Syria. His gift of healing and his humble way of life attracted many people who pilgrimaged to see him and many of them became his disciples. The reputation of Saint Maron spread all over the Byzantine Empire. Saint John Chrysostom, Patriarch of Constantinople, wrote to Maron in 405 A.D. while he was exiled in Cappadoce expressing his great love and respect and asking him to pray for them. Following Saint Maron’s death his disciples built a monastery after him on the Orontes River and formed the nucleus of the Maronite people and Church.
By the 7th century, the Maronites were recognized as an independent religious community, which was speaking and praying in the Aramaic language, the Edessa dialect. Aramaic was the language of Jesus Christ and in this language the Maronites continue to pray. The conquest of Syria by the Arabs and the decision of the Byzantine Empire for the Christians to withdraw from the area for safety reasons led the Maronites to appoint their own Archbishop. As a result, the Maronite Church was born. Its history is characterized by seclusion and continuous persecutions; due to this fact, many Maronites came to Cyprus.
The Maronite Community of Cyprus – Historical Background
The Maronites of Cyprus belong to the Eastern Christian cult of the Catholic Church. They have a Maronite Archbishop who is elected by the Holy Synod of the Maronite Church in Lebanon and approved by His Holiness the Pope.
Historians who studied the history of the Maronites of Cyprus presented four principal migrations of the Maronites in Cyprus, between the 8th and the 13th century A.D.
- The first migration is estimated towards the end of the 7th century during the reign of Emperor Justinian the II, following the Islamic conquest of Syria and the crushes between the Jacobites and the Byzantines, who persecuted the Maronites due to religious differences (Cirilli 189:5).
- The second migration to Cyprus took place after the destruction of the Monastery of Saint Maron on the Orontes river about 938 A.D. (Assamarani 1979:17).
- The third Maronite migration occurred upon the purchase of Cyprus by Guy de Lusignan in 1911 A.C. (Cirilli 1898:6).
- The fourth migration occurred at the end of the thirteenth century with the defeat of the Crusaders in Tripoli and the Holy Land (Cirilli 1898:6).
Official presence of the Maronite Community in Cyprus is mentioned in the beginning of the 11th century in a handwritten letter sent to the Maronite Patriarchate, in which a monk named Seman declares that he was given authority over the monks and the Monastery of Saint John Chrysostom at Koutsovendis, which was built during the second half of the 10th century to serve the religious needs of the Maronites. According to historians there are three more handwritten documents which confirm that in the 12th century there were 60 Maronite villages numbering about 50 000 inhabitants, especially on the mountain of Pentadactylos.
The Maronites consisted always a quiet community, mainly farmers and animal growers, dedicated to their religious beliefs and customs. However, the oppression at times by different religious groups as well as various diseases caused the assimilation and disappearance of the Maronite Community. Historic documents prove that between 1224 A.D. (Latin domination) and 1571 A.D. (Ottoman domination) the number of the Maronite villages went from 60 to 33.
Under the Ottoman domination the Maronites had 33 villages and their Archbishop lived in a Monastery in Idalion in the Karpasia area. In 1596, 25 years after the occupation, the total number of Maronite villages dropped to 19. The Ottomans imposed heavy taxes to the people including the Maronites. Also, many Maronites were killed defending the island. The persecution they suffered had as a result their reduction in number and the transfer of their Archbishopric to Lebanon (Palmieri, 1905).
In 1636 the conditions for the Christians became intolerable and certain Christians decided to become Muslims. According to Palmieri (1905) the Maronites who became Muslims lived mainly in the Nicosia District and «despite the fact that the Maronites turned to Muslims they never gave up their Christian faith and beliefs hoping to become Christians. This is why they baptized their children according to the Christian faith, but they also practiced circumcision. They also gave their children two names, a Muslim and a Christian one».
Under the Ottoman domination the Maronite Church was under the Greek Orthodox Church and Maronites were forced to embrace the Greek Orthodox rite and obey the Greek hierarchy. It was not until 1845 that the Maronite Patriarchate was successful in obtaining from the Sublime Porte a firman removing the Maronites from the rule of the Orthodox bishops and restoring them to the rule of the Maronite bishops. The French Consulate assisted a great deal for this achievement.
Under the British rule the Maronite Community developed a financial and cultural progress, together with an increase in population. The Maronites confirmed their religious rights as well as their political rights and built their churches and their schools. The elementary schools in the four villages were supervised by the Ministry of Education and Culture and additional lessons were offered such as ecclesiastical hymns, Arabic language, traditional dances and traditional songs. These schools were open to all communities but the pupils who attended were mostly Maronites.
With the census which took place after the establishment of the Republic of Cyprus in 1960 the Maronites living in Cyprus were approximately 2750, living mainly in the four villages of Kormakitis, Asomatos, Karpashia and Ayia Marina but also in various other places.
Although according to international law the Maronites of Cyprus form a national minority which has special characteristics, with the establishment of the Republic of Cyprus in 1960, they had to choose to belong either to the Greek or the Turkish Cypriot Community. The Maronites opted to join the Greek Cypriot Community as there are more common elements, such as the language and the religion.
The Maronite Community today
Following the Turkish invasion in 1974, the Maronites became refugees whereas a small number remained enclaved in the three Maronite villages of Kormakitis, Asomatos and Karpashia. In 1975 there were 979 enclaved Maronites; today there are 120 enclaved people in Kormakitis, 11 in Karpashia and only two octogenarian women in Asomatos. The village of Asomatos is presently used as a military camp and the Maronites are allowed to visit the village only on Sundays, with limited time restrictions, for mass in the Church of St. Michael the Archangel. The Maronite village of Ayia Marina is also used as a military camp and access is not allowed to the village, despite the relaxations in April 2003. Turkish military personnel live in certain houses in Karpashia.
The Maronite Community of Cyprus is an integral part of the people of the island living, however, as a distinct entity with its linguistic and religious characteristics. The present Maronite Community of about 6,000 persons represents only a fraction of what used to be a relatively sizeable Community of Maronites living mostly in the Northern part of Cyprus. Today, 75% of Maronites live in Anthoupoli, Ayios Dometios and Nicosia, 15% in Limassol, 5% in Larnaca, and the rest of them in Marki, Kotsiatis and Paphos.
Although the Maronites are educated in Greek schools and speak fluently the Greek language, they have their own language, practice the Maronite Catholic Religion, use the Aramaic language in the Holy Mass and have their own customs and traditions. The Maronites have their own icons, architecture, music and history.
For the Maronites the villages are directly connected with their religion and their tradition. For this reason someone notices mass visits of the Maronites to their villages during the festive seasons, since certain customs and traditions take place only in their villages. It is also remarkable that the Maronites originating from Kormakitis in meetings in the village they only speak in the Cypriot Maronite Arabic language whereas when they meet in the free areas of Cyprus they speak the Cypriot dialect. Therefore, the return of the Maronites to their villages is essential for the maintenance of their cultural identity and forms a priority in the policy followed by the Community.
Away from their villages, properties and churches, the assimilation of the Maronite community into the larger community has been continuously gaining impetus. In order to prevent the assimilation the Maronites are organized in various ways: the creation of clubs and cultural associations aiming to the meetings of young people, the organization of camping, the creation of the elementary school of Saint Maron and the national schools “St Mary’s” and “Terra Santa”, the publication of monthly communal newspapers, the creation of websites, the scouts organization, the cooperation with distinguished academics for the adoption of an alphabet for the Cypriot Maronite Arabic language and the organization of cultural events in order to raise awareness and cause the sensibility of the citizens.