SÃO PAULO, Brazil – After 340 years, Cyprus has once again a Latin bishop.

On March 16, Brazilian-born Franciscan priest Bruno Varriano received in Nicosia his episcopal ordination from Cardinal Pierluigi Pizzaballa, the Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem, and officially became the Patriarchal vicar of Cyprus.

Varriano, who also holds Italian citizenship, will lead a group of 16 priests and will keep accompanying a number of Latin Catholic communities, something that he has been doing since he arrived in the Mediterranean island in December of 2022. He will also work on the reorganization of the ecclesial structure in the country.

Cyprus is part of the Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem, where Varriano spent 26 years, in cities like Bethlehem and Nazareth. The history of Catholicism in the Holy Land and in Cyprus has been deeply interconnected since the 13th century, when the Franciscan order received from the Vatican the custody of that region.

“Every time there was persecution against the friars in the Holy Land, they would seek shelter here in Cyprus. That’s why the Church here has never disappeared,” Varriano told Crux.

With the southern part historically occupied by Greeks and the north dominated by Turks, Cyprus has always had a rather small Latin community, almost insignificant when compared to the Orthodox Church and the Muslim communities.

While the Church was so tiny that it didn’t need a bishop for more than three centuries, it has always been there, Varriano explained.

Over the past years, the number of Latin Catholics has been growing with the arrival of immigrants from Asia, Europe, and Africa.

“We have European communities, with people from Britain, Italy, and other nations, and also groups from Sri Lanka, India, and the Philippines,” Varriano said, adding that there is a large African contingent, with groups from several countries.

Most of such immigrants are poor workers in Cyprus. They have menial jobs and are many times exploited by their employers.

“One of the great challenges of the Church here is to stand by the most vulnerable people in the face of so much social injustice,” Varriano said.

He has been taking to the authorities about cases of immigrants who faced great mistreatment, like people who worked for several decades in Cyprus and then were suddenly expelled from the country with no rights.

Varriano has also been focusing on refugees. He created a specific pastoral ministry to assist them and visits such groups every week. They come from Somalia, Afghanistan, Syria, Iraq, and other nations devastated by war and poverty.

Last year, he set up a center to welcome underage refugees who were living on the streets. They were taught European languages and sent to the humanitarian corridor in Europe, being placed in countries like Italy and Sweden.

“It’s not that we want to increase the number of refugees in Cyprus. But we can’t remain indifferent if they’re here,” he said.

The north of the country has been under Turkish occupation since 1974 and there is a buffer zone between it and the south. Catholics from the north cannot cross it to come to the south, Varriano said. Church properties there have been destined for other uses and are inaccessible.

“We commonly rent garages for our celebrations,” Varriano said.

There are four Latin Catholic communities in the region. His project for this year is to increase the Catholic presence in the north, with resident priests and the adoption of the Turkish language by the church there.

While Greek is the official language in the south and Turkish is the official language in the north, English is commonly used for daily communications by Church members.

Varriano was initially sent to Cyprus to establish all the local structure, from the episcopal house to the institutional side of the Church, and didn’t expect to remain in the Mediterranean nation.

“I had been dreaming of going back to Brazil, maybe to the [Amazonian] island of Marajó. I ended up on the island of Cyprus,” he said.

But he was warmly welcomed there by the Latin and the Orthodox communities alike, not to mention the Catholic Maronite Church, which has 11 priests in the country.

“The priest came first and was generated as a bishop by the community,” he said.

Varriano hopes that his Brazilian origin will help him to mediate challenging situations with “a smile and the genuine wish to be close to the people.”

“I was detained inside the Bethlehem basilica and was a prisoner of war in 2002. I have been to Aleppo and saw the war. But in Brazil, we tend to be optimistic even in the face of complex circumstances,” he said. “That’s why they sent me here, I think.”