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History of Christianity in Crete

There is already lots of stuff published on the web that traces the history of the development of the Christian faith in Crete and I’ve listed some of the sources I have used in this very brief overview at the end of this page.

Ancient Bible

Ancient Bible

The Bible

The earliest references to Christianity in Crete are, of course, found in the Bible.  We read in Acts 2: 1-41 that Cretan Jews were amongst those in Jerusalem who were converted to Christianity at Pentecost.  We also read in Acts 27: 11-22 that, after he had completed three missionary journeys, Paul stopped briefly in Crete while being taken as a prisoner to Rome.  It was from Crete that his shipwreck voyage occurred.

Evidence of a Christian community on the island itself is found in Paul’s letter to Titus, Titus having been left on the island around AD57 to organise the church and appoint elders.  The letter warns of false teachings which could undermine the fledgling church and gives instructions about who to appoint as elders.

Development of the Early Church in Crete

The sizeable Jewish population in Crete at that time, which probably formed most of the early church, was of particular significance for the history of Christianity on the island, influencing the development of a church tradition and culture.  Records, mainly in the form of writings of the early bishops, suggest that the early church in Crete saw steady growth from the second century until the Arab conquest in the ninth century.  It appears to have grown from Gortyna, in southern central Crete, which became the leading Christian centre in part due to its importance as a Roman settlement, and from Knossos.

The writings of Eusebius show that Christianity had spread well beyond Gortyna and Knossos by the end of the second century.



The Decline of the Roman Empire

The Roman Empire in Western Europe effectively came to an end in the fifth century, whilst it continued to have influence in Eastern Europe until much later. Constantine moved the capital of the empire eastwards to Byzantium and renamed it Constantinople. Three years earlier Christianity had become the official religion of the Roman Empire. The development of the church in the eastern and western worlds thereafter took separate courses. In western Christendom the church developed on papal lines until the Reformation with successive popes assuming many of the roles that Christian Roman emperors had taken on themselves such as lawmaking, calling councils, senior appointments.

In Eastern Europe, still ruled by roman emperors, successive patriarchs of Constantinople had little choice but to follow the edicts of the emperor. By the eighth century there were 12 dioceses covering the whole of the island of Crete and more than 70 churches. Crete fell under the influence of the eastern world when in 732-3 it was removed from direct papal authority and brought within the sea of Constantinople.

The Venetian Empire

The subsequent history of the church in Crete was influenced by the many invasions and conquests the islanders saw right up until modern times.

In the ninth century, the Saracen conquest led to the suppression of Christianity and the destruction of many churches.  Crete was separated from the main body of the Church of Constantinople for about 135 years and plunged into darkness. In 961 the Byzantine Empire regained Crete and there was a second Byzantine era which lasted until 1204.  Chandax (Chania?) became the political and religious centre and the seat of the church in Crete.

The Byzantine Empire

Came to an end following the sacking of Constantinople in the fourth Crusade in1204.  Venice acquired Crete by purchase in 1207 as part of her share in the partition of the Byzantine Empire.  During the Venetian occupation which lasted until 1669, the ecclesiastical situation in Crete changed once more.  The Venetians sent away the Orthodox prelates of the island, re-organised the church according to the Latin model and sought to convert the orthodox Cretan people to Roman Catholicism.

Map of the Byzantine Empire

However, the Venetian occupation was unpopular and the people resisted. The Venetians strictly prohibited the presence of orthodox priests in Crete but the numerous orthodox monasteries of Crete maintained the Byzantine tradition and orthodox religion during the occupation.

The Ottoman Empire

The fall of Constantinople to the Ottoman Turks in 1453 led to the arrival of many émigré Jews and Christians to Crete.  The Ottoman Empire effectively succeeded the Byzantine Empire in the east and Constantinople became Istanbul, the centre of the new Empire. The Ottoman conquest of Crete took the better part of the seventeenth century to complete.  Chania and western Crete fell quickly but it took a 20 year siege of Heraklion for it to succumb and for the Venetians to finally leave the island.

From the fall of western Crete in 1634 there were numerous conversions to Islam by Cretans, mainly to avoid the extremely heavy taxation of Christians and other punitive measures.

Ottoman WarriorThe Modern Era

The Ottoman occupation was marked by a number of increasingly violent revolts in Crete against the Turks.  There were further uprisings during the Greek war of independence (1821-30) which failed and were met with harsh reprisals from the Turks.  Consequently Crete was not included within the newly independent Greece of 1830.  Instead, it was granted to Egypt, who ran the island for 10 years, before another treaty handed the island back to the Turks.  More rebellions ensued and were only halted when the Turks promised the Cretan concessions, including Christian parity with Islam.

The concessions did not materialise and in 1878 the Cretans rebelled again.  With the Turks at war with Russia, Greece threw her hand in support of the latest Cretan uprising.  The Russians also promised support for the Cretan cause, but in reality only to make the Turks throw resources into defending the island and to weaken the northern front.  Further uprisings took place until final liberation from the Ottoman Empire was achieved in 1898.

A period of self rule followed until 1913 when Crete was unified with the rest of Greece.  The Ottoman Empire came to an end with the outbreak of the First World War.

History of Crete