Early Places of Worship in Cyprus
From Cave Church to Basilica
Christians in Cyprus were no different from other young Christian communities of the early church. In the first three centuries after Christ, Christians met in secret in church houses, underground churches, and catacombs throughout the Roman Empire; the ancient catacombs of Rome are the most famous of these early meeting places. It is said that “Christians were persecuted above ground and prayed below ground.” Groups of Christians sought safe places in which to gather, for high and low joined daily as equals for the partaking of the common meal, teaching and reading scripture, singing hymns, and praying. Throughout the empire well organized Christian congregations with bishops, deacons, and elders prayed in secret, for persecution was always a real possibility especially in the time of Diocletian and Galerius 303 to 311AD.
After the Great Constantine came to power, Christians could finally, after three centuries, openly profess their Christian faith. Churches and chapels were built and later in the 4th century monasteries and great basilicas held prominent places throughout the empire. Bishops were well recognised figures of society, and the Patriarchs of Constantinople, Antioch, Rome, and Alexandria held enormous power over their flocks.
Saint Lazarus Church
Lazarus, whom Jesus loved, the man who would be buried twice, left Bethany after his resurrection and came to Cyprus because “the chief priests decided to kill Lazarus as well (as Jesus), since it was on his account that many of the Jews were leaving them and believing in Jesus.” [John 12:10-11] According to ancient Cypriot tradition he went to Kition, Larnaca, Cyprus, where later he was met by the Apostles Paul and Barnabas on their mission through Cyprus and was ordained by them as the first Bishop of Kition.
The church we see today, dating back to the early tenth century is in fact the third church built upon this site, which was once the location of the ancient necropolis where Lazarus had been buried. The foundations of one of the previous churches may still be seen beneath the current St Lazarus Church in Lazarus’ tomb. The tomb of the saint dates to the 1st century. The Emperor of Byzantium, Leo VI the Wise in exchange for them, sent money and technicians to build the church that we see today in Larnaca.
Cypriot tradition is not the only source of information about Lazarus. The discovery of his, already ancient, sarcophagus was made in 890AD. Lazarus was buried for a second time beneath a tiny church on the site of the present Ayios Lazaros church in Larnaca, his sarcophagus was inscribed with: “Lazarus four days dead and friend of Christ”. The tradition that Lazarus came to Cyprus from Bethany is supported not only by archaeological evidence, but also by the credible religious historian, Arethas, Archbishop of Cesarea, who related the discovery of Lazarus’ tomb and the transport of his bones to Constantinople in the late ninth century. On June 11, 2012 The Primate of the Russian Church received a portion of the relics of St. Lazarus to take back to Russia.