The Constitution of the Republic of Cyprus provides for freedom of religion, and the Government generally respects this right in practice. The basic law governing the Turkish Cypriot community refers specifically to a "secular republic" and provides for freedom of religion, and the Turkish Cypriot authorities generally respect this right in practice. However, the politically divisive environment on Cyprus occasionally affected aspects of religious freedom.
There was no change in the status of respect for religious freedom during the period covered by this report, and government policy continued to contribute to the generally free practice of religion. After the Turkish Cypriot authorities' decision to relax crossing restrictions on April 23, 2003, Greek Cypriots reported relatively easy access to religious sites in the north, including Apostolos Andreas monastery; Turkish Cypriots equally were able to visit religious sites, including Hala Sultan Tekke mosque, in the government-controlled area. On May 25, the Turkish Cypriot authorities stopped requiring Greek Cypriots to show their passports at checkpoints, further facilitating movement across the buffer zone.
The generally amicable relationship among religions in Cypriot society contributed to religious freedom; however, there were a few reports of vandalism of unused religious sites.
The U.S. Government discusses religious freedom with the Government as part of its overall policy to promote human rights.
Section I. Religious Demography
The country has a total area of 3,571 square miles, and its population is estimated at 814,700. (This is the Government's estimate for the total number of Greek Cypriots and Turkish Cypriots living in both parts of the island. The number does not include Turkish settlers or Turkish military personnel residing in the northern part of the island.)
Prior to 1974, the country experienced a long period of strife between its Greek and Turkish Cypriot communities. In response, the U.N. Force in Cyprus (UNFICYP) began peacekeeping operations in 1964. The island has been divided since the Turkish military intervention of 1974, following a coup d'etat directed from Greece. The southern part of the island is under the control of the Government of the Republic of Cyprus, while the northern part is ruled by a Turkish Cypriot administration. In 1983, that administration proclaimed itself the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus (TRNC) although no country recognizes it besides Turkey. A buffer zone patrolled by the UNFICYP separates the two parts. On April 23, 2003, Turkish Cypriot authorities relaxed many restrictions on movement between the two communities, including abolishing all crossing fees. The new procedures led to relatively unimpeded contact between the communities and permitted Greek Cypriots and Turkish Cypriots to visit religious sites located in the other community, although there were reports that slow processing at buffer zone checkpoints limited the number of people who crossed the zone to visit religious sites during holidays.
Approximately 96 percent of the population in the government-controlled area is Greek Orthodox. Approximately 0.7 percent of the remaining population is Maronite, slightly less than 0.4 percent is Armenian Orthodox, 0.1 percent is Latin (Roman Catholic), and 3.2 percent belong to other groups. The latter category includes small groups of Cypriot Protestants and foreigners of various religious beliefs.
An estimated 99 percent of the Turkish Cypriot population is at least nominally Muslim. There is a small Turkish Cypriot Baha'i community. Most other non-Muslims in the north are foreigners from Western Europe who are generally members of the Roman Catholic or Anglican Churches. Approximately 10 percent of the population in the north attends religious services regularly.
There is some western Protestant missionary activity in the government-controlled area.
Section II. Status of Religious Freedom
The Constitution of the Republic of Cyprus provides for freedom of religion, and the Government generally respects this right in practice. The basic law in the Turkish Cypriot community also provides for freedom of religion, and the authorities generally respect this right in practice. Turkish Cypriots residing in the south and Greek Cypriots living in the north are allowed to practice their religions freely. The 1960 Constitution of the Republic of Cyprus specifies that the Greek Orthodox Church of Cyprus, which is not under the authority of the mainland Greek Orthodox Church, has the exclusive right to regulate and administer its internal affairs and property in accordance with its holy canons and charter. The Constitution states the Vakf, the Muslim institution that regulates religious activity for Turkish Cypriots, has the exclusive right to regulate and administer its internal affairs and property in accordance with Vakf laws and principles. No legislative, executive, or other act can contravene or interfere with the Orthodox Church or the Vakf. Both the Greek Orthodox Church and the Vakf are exempt from taxes with regard to religious activity. According to law, they are required to pay taxes only on strictly commercial activities, such as commercial and real estate operations.
Three other religious groups are recognized in the Constitution: Armenian Orthodox, Maronite Christians, and Latins (Roman Catholics). These groups also are exempt from taxes and are eligible, along with the Greek Orthodox Church and the Vakf, for government subsidies to their religious institutions. No other religious group is recognized in the Constitution.
Both the Government of Cyprus and the Turkish Cypriot administration have constitutional or legal bars against religious discrimination. The basic agreement covering treatment of Greek Cypriots and Maronites living in the north and Turkish Cypriots living in the south remains the 1975 Vienna III Agreement. Among other things, this agreement provides for facilities for religious worship.
In the government-controlled area, religions other than the five recognized religions are not required to register with the authorities; however, if they desire to engage in financial transactions, such as maintaining a bank account, they must register as a nonprofit company. To register, a group must submit an application through an attorney stating the purpose of the nonprofit organization and providing the names of the organization's directors. Upon approval, nonprofit organizations are tax-exempt and are required to provide annual reports of their activities. Registration is granted promptly, and many religious groups are recognized. No religious groups were denied registration during the period covered by this report.
There are no prohibitions against missionary activity or proselytizing in the government-controlled areas. Foreign missionaries must obtain and periodically renew residence permits in order to live in the country; normally renewal requests are not denied.
The Government requires children in public primary and secondary schools to take instruction in the Greek Orthodox religion. Parents of other religions may request that their children be excused from such instruction. While these children are exempted from attending religious services, some Jehovah's Witnesses parents have reported that their children were not excused from all religious instruction.
Members of Jehovah's Witnesses reported some difficulties in claiming conscientious objector status and exemption from required reserve military service in the Greek Cypriot National Guard. While the law provides for exemption from active military service for conscientious objectors, it does not provide such an exemption from reserve duty. Legal proceedings were initiated in 2002 against several members of Jehovah's Witnesses for failure to appear for reserve duty. Their cases were suspended in November 2002 pending a revision of the law.
The Government of Cyprus recognizes the following religious holidays as national holidays: the Epiphany, Annunciation, Good Friday, Easter Monday, Holy Spirit Day, Assumption Day, and Christmas Day.
In the northern part of the island, the Turkish Cypriot basic law refers specifically to a "secular republic," and provides for religious freedom; no specific religion is recognized in the basic law.
Religious organizations are not required to register with the Turkish Cypriot authorities unless they wish to engage in commercial activity or apply for tax-exempt status. There are no legal restrictions on missionary activity; however, such activity is rare.
There is instruction in religion, ethics, and comparative religions in two grades of the primary school system in the Turkish Cypriot community. There is no formal Islamic religious instruction in public schools, and there are no state-supported religious schools.
The Turkish Cypriot authorities do not sponsor any interfaith activity.
The following religious holidays are observed widely in the Turkish Cypriot community: Kurban Bairam, Birthday of the Prophet Mohammad, and Ramazan Bairam.
Restrictions on Religious Freedom
In May 2001, the European Court of Human Rights ruled that the Government of Turkey was responsible for restrictions imposed on Greek Cypriots resident in the north in regard to their access to places of worship and participation in other areas of religious life. Developments in April 2003 have permitted relatively unimpeded contact between the two communities and access to respective religious sites.
Between 1997 and 2000, the Government and the Turkish Cypriot authorities agreed to allow reciprocal visits to religious sites on certain religious holidays in which groups of Greek Cypriots visited Apostolos Andreas monastery in the north and groups of Turkish Cypriots visited Hala Sultan Tekke mosque in the south. After April 23, 2003, Greek Cypriots have reported relatively easy access to Apostolos Andreas monastery and other religious sites in the north, while Turkish Cypriots have visited religious sites, including Hala Sultan Tekke in the government-controlled area. Some Greek Cypriots and Turkish Cypriots reported that slow processing at buffer zone checkpoints limited the number of people who can travel across the buffer zone to visit religious sites during holidays. As of December 31, 2003, there had been almost 2.5 million crossings of the buffer zone in both directions. Two additional checkpoints have been opened to facilitate the flow of personal vehicles across the buffer zone.
Greek Cypriots and Maronites are still prohibited from visiting religious sites located in military zones in the Turkish Cypriot community.
There have been reports that Greek Cypriot Orthodox and Maronite priests have occasionally performed religious services in unused churches in the north. These events have not generated any media coverage or reaction from Turkish Cypriot authorities.
Missionaries have the legal right to proselytize in both communities, but the Government and Turkish Cypriot authorities closely monitor missionary activities. It is illegal for a missionary to use "physical or moral compulsion" to make religious conversions. The police may investigate missionary activity based on a citizen's complaint. They may also open an investigation if missionaries are suspected of being involved in illegal activities that threaten the security of the republic, constitutional or public order, or public health and morals. There are occasional apprehensions but there have been no arrests under these laws.
In both the government-controlled areas and the Turkish Cypriot community, there were no reports of religious prisoners or detainees.
Forced Religious Conversion
In both the government-controlled areas and the Turkish Cypriot community, there were no reports of forced religious conversion, including of minor U.S. citizens who had been abducted or illegally removed from the United States, or of the refusal to allow such citizens to be returned to the United States.
Abuses by Terrorist Organizations
There were no reports of persecution targeted at specific religions, including act of anti-Semitism, by individuals or organizations designated as terrorist organizations.
Section III. Societal Attitudes
There are polite relations between the Greek Orthodox Church of Cyprus and the other religious communities in the south. In the north there are few non-Muslims, but there is no friction between them and the nominally Muslim population. Greek Cypriots report that unused Orthodox churches and cemeteries continued to be robbed and vandalized. Although Turkish Cypriots reported that unused mosques in the south also have been vandalized, the Government routinely carried out maintenance and repair of mosques in the south.
The Orthodox Church is suspicious of any attempts to proselytize among Greek Cypriots and closely monitors such activities. Religion is a significantly more prominent component of Greek Cypriot society than of Turkish Cypriot society, with correspondingly greater cultural and political influence. This influence is long-standing. During the 1950's, the head of the Greek Orthodox Church of Cyprus, Archbishop Makarios III, led the Greek Cypriot campaign for independence and served as president from independence in 1960 until his death in 1977. While the preeminent position of the Church has been somewhat reduced in recent years, it remains an important power center in Cypriot politics. Present day influence of the Church can be seen in the political messages bishops and priests regularly include in their Sunday sermons.
On April 24, Greek Cypriots and Turkish Cypriots voted in separate referenda on a plan to reunite the island proposed by UN Secretary General Kofi Annan. In the weeks leading up to the referendum vote in the Greek Cypriot community, the Greek Orthodox Church of Cyprus came out against the Annan Plan and priests and bishops regularly made political statements about the Annan plan in their sermons. In a sermon six days before the referendum, the Bishop of Kyrenia (now resident in the government-controlled area, although his traditional seat is located in the area under Turkish Cypriot administration) told Greek Cypriots that those who voted for the Annan plan would not go to heaven. In the Turkish Cypriot community, the Vakf did not take a public stand on the Annan plan.
As the largest owner of real estate in the south and the operator of several large business enterprises, the Greek Orthodox Church is a significant economic factor. Similarly, the Vakf is the largest landowner in the north.
Section IV. U.S. Government Policy
The U.S. Government discusses religious freedom issues with the authorities in the context of its overall dialogue and policy of promoting human rights.
The U.S. Embassy played a key role, working closely with the U.N., in obtaining agreement from both sides in January 2000 to initiate a project to restore the island's two most significant religious sites, the Apostolos Andreas monastery and the Hala Sultan Tekke mosque. Restoration work at the sites began in 2001 based on recommendations from the world's leading experts in structures of this type and period. Both sites were cleaned, fenced, and re-landscaped. The ancillary buildings at both sites were also renovated, and work on the church and mosque buildings was scheduled to begin in the fall of 2002. An unexpected Neolithic archeological find at Hala Sultan Tekke mosque has delayed work on the mosque while the find is being documented. Once this process is complete, the restoration project will be tendered. Despite agreement between the Government of Cyprus and the Greek Orthodox Church of Cyprus on the particulars of the Apostolos Andreas restoration project, some Greek Cypriots oppose the plan to remove some relatively recent construction on top of the monastery in order to enable experts to best preserve the historic structure underneath. Pressure from those opposing the official restoration plan has resulted in suspension of work at the monastery.
The Ambassador and other Embassy officers meet periodically with Greek Cypriot and Turkish Cypriot religious authorities regarding specific religious freedom concerns.