An Ecclesiastical Coup d’Etat & the Pan-Orthodox Council of 1973

Archbishop Makarios III of Cyprus

Archbishop Makarios III of Cyprus was also the first President of Cyprus, serving three terms between 1960 and his death in 1977. He survived four assassination attempts and a coup d’etat, and in the early 1970s, he was in a difficult position — his life was constantly in danger and he struggled to balance the popular Greek Cypriot desire for union with Greece (known as “enosis”) with the complex realities on the ground in Cyprus, which had a significant Turkish minority. During this period Makarios was also at odds with the Greek government in Athens — a military junta that had taken control of Greece in a 1967 coup.

On March 2, 1972, three Cypriot bishops — the Metropolitans of Paphos, Kitium, and Kyrenia (3/5 of the episcopate of Cyprus) — held what they claimed was a Holy Synod meeting and called on Makarios to resign as President of Cyprus. Their argument was that Makarios had violated Orthodox canon law by serving as a secular leader while also being a hierarch. In fact, Makarios was actually the fourth Orthodox primate in the 20th century to hold such a dual role (the other three were Metropolitan Fan Noli of Albania, Patriarch Miron of Romania, and Archbishop Damaskinos of Athens). For centuries before this, the Archbishop of Cyprus also held the position of “ethnarch,” which made him effectively the civil leader of the Greek Orthodox population of the island. This is to say nothing of other historical examples, such as the bishop-princes of Montenegro. The three bishops’ canonical argument may have been thin, but they were backed by the powerful Georgios Grivas, leader of the vehemently pro-enosis guerrilla organization known as the EOKA.

Makarios responded two weeks later, rejecting the call for his resignation as President — not only did he view it as both canonically unnecessary and politically impracticable, but he pointed out that the three bishops’ purported Holy Synod meeting was totally out of order, since no such meeting could properly take place without the primate, Makarios, unless he was incapacitated. Even so, Makarios hinted that, if the bishops persisted in their demands, perhaps he would resign as President anyway. Eight days later, the three bishops renewed their call for Makarios to resign. He ignored this, and when the bishops repeated their demand in June, he rejected it.

Six months later, Makarios announced his intent to run for re-election as President. The three bishops threatened him with deposition, but Makarios ignored them. Because he was the only candidate to run for President, the election was not actually held and Makarios was declared the winner by default in February 1973. On March 8, after Makarios’s inauguration, the three bishops held another meeting, again claiming to be the Holy Synod. This time, they voted to depose and defrock Makarios and offered him a 30-day period to appeal. An incensed Makarios issued this statement the following day:

The so-called ‘decision to defrock me,’ taken by the three bishops in a ‘conventicle’ held at Limassol, is void ab initio and of no value whatsoever. I do not, however, conceal my deepest regret that the three bishops, acting on instigation and in utter disregard of the difficult circumstances now prevailing in Cyprus, have shown lack of episcopal conscience and national responsibility and have unscrupulously attempted today my spiritual assassination. I pray to God that they may be forgiven, ‘for they know not what they do.’

The decision of the three bishops is causing the Church of Cyprus grievous harm and is scandalizing the ecclesiastical flock for which, on account of their inefficiency, they could not care less, and which they ought not to despise and hurt. The act of these three bishops, having shown unacceptable behaviour of dark mediaeval mentality, amounts, amongst other things, to an utter contempt of the people and flock.

Fully conscious of my responsibilities as primate of the Church of Cyprus and of my obligations as national leader, I have no other alternative than to take all necessary steps in the circumstances for the protection of the Church, the bishops and shepherds of which must be acceptable and respected by their flock and not objectionable and undesirable.

The Patriarchs of Alexandria, Antioch, Jerusalem, and Moscow immediately voiced their support for Makarios; soon the primates of Bulgaria, Poland, and Czechoslovakia echoed this. Patriarch Elias of Antioch declared the Cypriot bishops’ action “absolutely void, irregular and deplorable”; Patriarch Pimen of Moscow said that it was “void and without effect.” A few days later, Ecumenical Patriarch Dimitrios and the Holy Synod of Greece threw their support behind Makarios, leaving the three bishops isolated.

Undeterred, the bishops met again a month later: their 30-day window had expired, and they proclaimed Makarios to be both removed from the Archiepiscopal throne and stripped of the grace of the episcopate; he was now, they said, a simple layman named Michael Mouskos. The eldest of the three bishops, Gennadios of Paphos, was named locum tenens.


Patriarch Nicholas VI of Alexandria

The three bishops really didn’t have a leg to stand on: Makarios had overwhelming popular support, and the purported Holy Synod meeting lacked even the veneer of legitimacy. Not only could the Holy Synod not meet without the primate except if he was incapacitated, but canonically, a minimum of 12 bishops were needed to defrock a hierarch (cf. Canon 12 of Carthage). Makarios was in a strong position, but, as he warned in his statement on March 9, he was not going to let the bishops’ egregious action go unpunished. Within days of that March 9 statement, Makarios began privately exploring the possibility of calling an extraordinary pan-Orthodox synod — a “Major Synod,” which would include the four ancient Patriarchates as well as the Church of Greece. On March 14, United States intelligence officials noted this possibility but commented, “On balance, we believe [the] Archbishop would be reluctant to involve off-island prelates.”

While Makarios was in no real danger from the three bishops, the whole debacle had a terrible effect on the Orthodox faithful of Cyprus. One of Makarios’s government officials reported that church attendance on Pascha had fallen by half. In early May, Makarios convened a local synod consisting of all the bishops and monastery abbots in Cyprus (although the three opposition bishops did not attend). At the synod, Makarios declared the rebellious throne of Paphos to be vacant, and he announced his plan to convene a Major Synod.

Over the next two months, all the necessary steps were taken to plan the Major Synod. Only the Orthodox Churches outside of the Soviet orbit were invited. Both the Ecumenical Patriarchate and the Church of Greece declined to participate. The Ecumenical Patriarch’s absence was due to Turkish pressure, while the Church of Greece was facing a crisis of its own: the Greek Holy Synod was split, and the primate, Archbishop Ieronymos, had briefly resigned under pressure and would permanently retire by the end of the year. Archbishop Makarios himself was even mentioned as a dark-horse candidate to be the next primate of Greece, which would have caused a political and ecclesiastical earthquake had it happened.

The Major Synod opened on July 5, 1973. With the Ecumenical Patriarch absent, the Synod was chaired by Patriarch Nicholas of Alexandria. Sixteen “off-island” bishops traveled to Cyprus for the Synod, including the Patriarch of Antioch. The Patriarch of Jerusalem was unable to attend due to health issues. On July 6, the Synod unanimously decided that the three Cypriot bishops’ purported defrocking of Makarios was uncanonical and thus void. Eight days later, the Major Synod unanimously voted to defrock the three bishops and return them to the ranks of the laity. The Synod announced its decision in a 10-page, 3,000-word declaration.


This was not the first time, and it would not be the last, that the Church of Cyprus would need to call upon the neighboring autocephalous churches to help during a crisis. In the early 20th century, Cyprus asked for help from Constantinople, Alexandria, and Jerusalem during a succession crisis in which the Church of Cyprus had just two bishops left. In 2000, a Major Synod cleared the name of Metropolitan Athanasios of Limassol, who had been falsely accused of misconduct. And most recently, in 2006, the hierarchy of Cyprus requested a Major Synod to deal with the tragic situation involving Makarios’s successor Chrysostomos I, who had fallen into a coma and needed to be retired, but the Cypriot Church lacked enough bishops to decide this on their own. The resulting Synod, chaired by Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew, declared the throne of Cyprus vacant, paving the way for local archiepiscopal elections. It is notable that the 1973 Major Synod that vindicated Archbishop Makarios was chaired, not by the Ecumenical Patriarch, but by the Patriarch of Alexandria — a fact fully accepted by the Ecumenical Patriarchate — demonstrating that primacy in the pan-Orthodox context can be nuanced rather than monolithic.

I’ve only ever seen the term “Major Synod” used to refer to Cyprus, and I’m not sure if there’s any formal technical definition, but in practice it has always meant Cyprus calling on the “Greek Churches” (Constantinople, Alexandria, Jerusalem, and Greece), plus Antioch, to augment the Cypriot hierarchy and help deal with a particularly pressing issue. There’s a certain ad hoc nature to the whole thing, although there’s enough precedent that the one might reasonably refer to Major Synods as a rare but normative feature of Cypriot church governance.

The Major Synods of Cyprus also tell us something about the nature of what we call “autocephaly.” Since 2006, the number of bishops in Cyprus has increased significantly, from 10 to 17 — large enough that a Major Synod may no longer be needed in the future. Although Cyprus’s autocephaly is ancient — confirmed by Canon 8 of the Third Ecumenical Council — its hierarchy has, until very recently, been so small that, in practice, major decisions like the defrocking of a bishop (and, at times, the consecration of a bishop) would necessarily have required help from other churches. In other words, Cyprus could not entirely govern its own internal affairs by itself, even though it was not subordinate to any particular sister church. We often speak of “autocephaly” as a kind of binary concept — you either have it or you don’t. But Cyprus’s experience of autocephaly is complicated, suggesting that there may not be a single, binary model of church independence, but rather a continuum or a collection of characteristics of independence or dependence. We can legitimately say that, with the growth of its hierarchy, Cyprus has become “more autocephalous” (or at least, “more independent”) over the past 15 years. This more nuanced conception of ecclesiastical independence could be useful as we examine present and future challenges in inter-Orthodox relations.


Main Sources

Stanley Mayes, Makarios: A Biography (Macmillan, 1981), 215-241 (chapter entitled “The Bishops Rebel”).

U.S. State Department documents on the Cypriot Church crisis from 1973, available on Wikileaks.

New York Times articles on the Major Synod dated July 6 and July 15, 1973.

Achilles C. Emilianides, Religion and Law in Cyprus (Wolters Kluwer, 2011), paragraphs 84-85.

George A. Kazamias, “Cyprus 1960-1974: internal developments,” 16-17 in Kazamias, et al, Introduction to the History of Cyprus (Open University of Cyprus, 2013).

Video from the 1973 Major Synod may be viewed here.

8 Replies to “An Ecclesiastical Coup d’Etat & the Pan-Orthodox Council of 1973”

  1. I take slight issue with your characterization of the rebellious bishops’ argument as simply “thin.” The Apostolic Canons, as you know, do contain two canons (81 and 83) which to my mind mean the three bishops were, technically, in a vacuum, correct. How much fourth century canons pertain to late-20th-century ecclesiastical matters is of course another question, particularly in light of the subsequent history you mention. But on the other hand it’s a truism that many fine rules which ought to be enforced are honored more in the breach than in the observance. (Though I agree, as you imply, that in this specific case the charge seems—at least mostly—pretextual.)

    Thank you very much for all the work you’ve put in at this site over the years, it’s a great work you’re doing; and I always enjoy when you have a new post.

    1. Great point – the three bishops at least had a canonical leg to stand on, even if it’s clear that nobody was interpreting those early canons as applying to the rather different context of the 20th century. I appreciate you pointing out those canons, and thank you for the kind words.

      1. As I understand it, the Archbishop of Cyprus is commemorating the head of the OCU in the diptychs and has entered into communion with the OCU, and some of the hierarchs of the Church of Cyprus have agreed with this decision. Other hierarchs of the Church of Cyprus disagree and do not acknowledge the OCU as a legitimate Orthodox body.

  2. Dear Mr. Namee,
    I happened to come across an article on Archbishop Victor Abou Assaly and thought that I would mention that he was a cousin of mine. When I was a child my grandmother told me that he would visit her in Hawkesbury, Ontario. I remember the stories that she would tell me about him and how kind and saintly he was. My grandmothers name was Hassiby Assaly and she was from Rashaya, Lebanon. I am sorry that this is all I can remember about him. I am now 80 years old and that was a long time ago!

    1. Thank you for this message! I suspect our families are related in some way – my great-grandmother’s maiden name was Assaly and my family is from villages near Rashaya (Mhaithe, Ain Arab, and Aithe El Foukhar).

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