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Diplomacy in Action

Cyprus


Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor
Report
October 26, 2009

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The Constitution of the Republic of Cyprus provides for freedom of religion, and other laws and policies contributed to the generally free practice of religion.

The Government generally respected religious freedom in practice. There was no change in the status of respect for religious freedom by the Government during the reporting period.

There were few reports of societal abuses or discrimination based on religious affiliation, belief, or practice, and prominent societal leaders took positive steps to promote religious freedom.

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 an area of 5,747 square miles and an estimated population in the government-controlled area of 789,000. Prior to 1974, the country experienced a long period of strife between its Greek Cypriot and Turkish Cypriot communities. In response, the UN Force in Cyprus (UNFICYP) began peacekeeping operations in 1964. The island has been divided de facto since the Turkish military intervention of 1974, following a coup d'état 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 administered by Turkish Cypriots. In 1983 their administration proclaimed itself the "Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus" ("TRNC"). The United States does not recognize the "TRNC," nor does any other country except Turkey. A buffer zone, or "green line," patrolled by UNFICYP, separates the two parts. In 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; however, citizens, as well as foreigners, must show identification at the buffer zone crossing points to go from one side to the other.

According to the most recent (2001) population census, 95 percent of the permanent population in the government-controlled area belongs to the Autocephalous Greek Orthodox Church of Cyprus. Religious groups that constitute less than 5 percent of the population include Roman Catholic, Protestant, Muslim, Maronite Catholic, Armenian Orthodox, Jewish, and other groups.

There is a Buddhist temple in Nicosia. There is a synagogue in Larnaca. Both the Buddhist temple and the synagogue are used primarily by expatriates and foreign residents. The Jewish community, numbering approximately 2,000, includes a very small number of native Jewish Cypriots and a greater number of Israeli, English, and other European Jews who are part of the expatriate community, which includes both observant and nonpracticing members.

A 2006 opinion poll indicated that 19 percent of Greek Cypriots attended church services every Sunday, 23 percent attended once or twice a month, 35 percent attended only for major religious holidays and ceremonies such as weddings and funerals, and 19 percent rarely attended. The remainder did not attend religious services.

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal/Policy Framework

The 1960 Constitution of the Republic of Cyprus provides for freedom of religion, and other laws and policies contributed to the generally free practice of religion. The Constitution specifies that the Autocephalous 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 Church of Cyprus is exempt from taxes with regard to religious activity and, according to the law, is required to pay taxes only on strictly commercial activities. The Constitution also lays out guidelines for the Vakif, the Muslim institution that regulates religious activity for Turkish Cypriots, which similarly has the exclusive right to regulate and administer its internal affairs and property in accordance with its laws and principles. The Vakif, however, operated only in the area administered by Turkish Cypriots during the reporting period. No legislative, executive, or other act may contravene or interfere with the Orthodox Church or the Vakif.

Three other religious groups are recognized in the 1960 Constitution: Maronite Catholics, Armenian Orthodox, and "Latins" (Roman Catholics). These groups are also exempt from taxes and are eligible, along with the Church of Cyprus and the Vakif, for government subsidies for their religious institutions.

The Government of Cyprus recognizes the following holy days as national holidays: Epiphany, Annunciation, Good Friday, Easter Monday, Holy Spirit Day (Pentecost), Assumption, and Christmas.

There are constitutional and other legal bars against religious discrimination. The 1975 Vienna III Agreement remains the basic agreement covering treatment of Greek Cypriots and Maronites living in the area administered by Turkish Cypriots and Turkish Cypriots living in the government-controlled area. Among other things, this agreement provides for facilities for religious worship. Religious groups other than the five recognized religions are not required to register with the Government; however, if they desire to engage in financial transactions, such as maintaining a bank account, they must register as nonprofit organizations. To register, a group must submit an application through an attorney that states the purposes of the nonprofit organization and provides the names of the organization's corporate directors. Upon approval, nonprofit organizations are tax-exempt and are required to provide annual reports of their activities. Registration is granted promptly. The Ministry of Commerce reported that no religious groups were denied registration during the reporting period.

There are no prohibitions against missionary activity or proselytizing in the government-controlled area. Foreign missionaries must obtain and periodically renew residence permits to live in the country; normally renewal requests are approved.

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; these children are then exempted from attending religious services and instruction. This exemption is not allowed for children whose parents are Greek Cypriot, regardless of their religious affiliation or lack thereof.

Restrictions on Religious Freedom

The Government generally respected religious freedom in practice. There was no change in the status of respect for religious freedom by the Government during the reporting period.

Since 2003, when restrictions on movement to the northern part of the island were relaxed, Greek Orthodox Cypriots as well as other religious groups have reported better access to religious sites in the area administered by Turkish Cypriots. Turkish Cypriots enjoyed relatively easy access to religious sites in the government-controlled area; however, a Turkish Cypriot authority reported that Turkish Cypriot cemeteries and mosques in the villages of Kosi and Aplanda in the Larnaca district were inaccessible, as they were reportedly within Greek Cypriot military camps.

The Ministry of Interior (MOI) reported that it spent $927,800 (€663,500) in 2008 for the conservation of 17 mosques and other Islamic places of worship in the government-controlled area. The 2009 MOI budget for the same activities was $1,182,000 (€845,280). The Department of Antiquities spent an additional $147,500 (€105,463) in 2008 on the conservation of the 17 mosques because they are also considered historical monuments. The Department's 2009 budget for this purpose was $62,926 (€45,000) plus labor costs. Of the 17 mosques, only four were open to public use, despite increased need caused by an influx of Muslim asylum seekers and students. The single functioning mosque in Nicosia was particularly overcrowded.

Missionaries have the legal right to proselytize; 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. In contrast with the previous report, there were no reports that the Government monitored missionary activity.

Conscientious objectors, including religious ones, are exempt from active military duty; however, they are legally required to complete an alternative military service and perform reservist duty in the Greek Cypriot National Guard. During the military swearing-in ceremony, Orthodox clergy lead a common prayer; while recruits may opt out of taking part in the prayer, minority religious groups reported that this option was rarely used as recruits did not want to bring negative attention on themselves.

The nongovernmental organization (NGO) Action for Equality, Support, Antiracism (KISA) reported that the Buddhist community faced difficulty finding a permanent temple in Nicosia due to an inability to obtain necessary permits from local municipalities. In December 2008 police allegedly visited the site the community was using as a temple in response to complaints submitted by neighbors. The police allegedly warned that they would shut down the temple if operations continued without a permit. KISA submitted a complaint to the Ombudsman's Office, which opened an investigation. In the meantime, the community used a meditation center in another neighborhood as a temple.

There were complaints received by the Ombudsman's Office and the NGOs Future Worlds Center and KISA that the Nicosia District Office of the Social Welfare Services Department refused Christmas and Easter bonuses to entitled welfare recipients. Future Worlds Center reported that only non-Christians were affected; however, KISA reported that bonuses were withheld from all foreign beneficiaries irrespective in Nicosia of their religions. The Ombudsman's Office reported that it received complaints that individual Social Welfare officers delivered bonuses inconsistently across the island; at the end of the reporting period, an investigation was ongoing as to whether religion and/or nationality could have influenced delivery of bonuses. Future Worlds Center also received complaints that the Office of Social Welfare Services discontinued welfare benefits to asylum seekers of Muslim origin who turned down jobs on pig farms based on religious objections.

At the end of the reporting period, the Ombudsman’s Office was investigating complaints from non-Greek Orthodox prisoners in the Central Prison that they lacked facilities to exercise their religion. While the prison was equipped with an Orthodox Church place of worship, no similar facilities were available to non-Orthodox prisoners, who make up the majority of the prison population. Additionally, a Muslim within the "open prison" filed a complaint alleging that he was prevented from attending mosque on holy days.

Some religious denominations reported difficulties in obtaining visas from the Cypriot government for clergy and student volunteers from countries outside of the European Union.

The Baha'i community reported that it often faced difficulty burying its dead, as cemeteries generally exist only for recognized religious groups. It reported asking the Government for a plot to create a cemetery but claimed that it received no response by the end of the reporting period. The Jewish community reported that it did not receive a water source for its cemetery from the Larnaca Municipality and contended the municipality is required to provide one by law; the lack of water made it difficult for the community to perform traditional cleansing after burials.

Several religious groups reported difficulties in registering as nonprofit charities and alleged that the Government was unresponsive to status-of-application inquiries.

There were no reports of religious prisoners or detainees in the country.

Forced Religious Conversion

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 who had not been allowed to be returned to the United States.

Improvements and Positive Developments in Respect for Religious Freedom

In May 2009 an Advisory Board for the Preservation, Physical Protection, and Restoration of the Immovable Cultural Heritage of Cyprus was formed by the members of the Technical Committee on Cultural Heritage within the framework of the ongoing negotiations between the Greek Cypriot and Turkish Cypriot communities. The board was in the process of compiling a priority list of immovable cultural heritage sites that needed urgent restoration. The board decided to start the restoration of two pilot projects: the Arnavut Mosque and the Archangel Michael Church.

From November 16 to 18, 2008, the Church of Cyprus and the Roman Catholic Community of Sant'Egidio hosted the 22nd International Meeting of Prayer for Peace. Heads of states, including President Demetris Christofias, and several hundred religious leaders representing Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism, Judaism, Jainism, Sikhism, Tenrikyo, Parseeism, and Shintoism attended the event, which was aimed at promoting interfaith dialogue.

From September 29 to October 2, 2008, the Church of Cyprus hosted the Executive Committee meeting of the Middle East Council of Churches, which brought together the heads of several Christian denominations of the Middle East.

Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom

There were few reports of societal abuses or discrimination based on religious affiliation, belief, or practice, and prominent societal leaders took positive steps to promote religious freedom. Relations between the Church of Cyprus and other religious communities in the government-controlled area were cordial.

In May 2009 Future Worlds Center reported complaints of Muslim construction workers not being allowed to stop work for prayers.

The Jewish community in Larnaca reported an increase in anti-Semitic incidents following the start of Israel's Gaza offensive in late December 2008. The Chabad House in Larnaca reported instances of rock and egg throwing that continued throughout the reporting period, as well as harassing telephone calls. Although these incidents were reported to police, protection was not increased to a level that community leaders found sufficient; this discouraged some community members from taking part in events.

In May 2008 two men vandalized one of the two mosques in Limassol. Press reports indicated the men were retaliating in response to an attack by a group of men of Arab origin. Police closed the investigation without locating any suspects.

Some religious groups reported that students occasionally suffered negative reactions from teachers and fellow students when taking advantage of the exemption from religious instruction.

Several religious groups complained of difficulties buying land or constructing buildings, forcing them to rent, instead of owning, the properties where they meet.

Although Turkish Cypriots occasionally reported that unused mosques in the government-controlled area were vandalized, the Government of Cyprus routinely maintained and repaired them.

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy

The U.S. Government discusses religious freedom with the Government as part of its overall policy to promote human rights.

AREA ADMINISTERED BY TURKISH CYPRIOTS

Since 1974 the northern part of Cyprus has been administered by Turkish Cypriot authorities. It proclaimed itself the "Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus" ("TRNC") in 1983. The United States does not recognize the "TRNC," nor does any other country except Turkey.

The "basic law" in the area administered by Turkish Cypriots provides for freedom of religion, and other "laws" and policies contributed to the generally free practice of religion. The "law" refers specifically to a "secular republic"; however, the politically divisive environment of Cyprus engendered some restrictions on religious freedom, particularly for Greek Cypriots, Armenians, and Maronites.

The Turkish Cypriot authorities generally respected religious freedom in practice. There was no change in the status of respect for religious freedom during the reporting period.

There were few reports of societal abuses or discrimination based on religious affiliation, belief, or practice.

The U.S. Government discusses religious freedom with Turkish Cypriot authorities as part of its overall policy to promote human rights.

Section I. Religious Demography

According to a count in April 2006, the population in the area was estimated at 265,100. Ninety-eight percent of this population is Sunni Muslim, at least nominally. An estimated 10,000, mostly immigrant workers from Turkey of Turkish, Kurdish, or Arab origin, are Alevis, "followers of Ali," who follow a strand of Shi'a Islam with some pre-Islamic influences. There are also followers of other schools of Islam. There is a Turkish Cypriot Baha'i community of approximately 500 persons. Most non-Muslims residing in the area administered by Turkish Cypriots are foreigners from Western Europe who are generally members of the Roman Catholic or Anglican Churches. Approximately 10 percent of the population in the area administered by Turkish Cypriots attends religious services regularly.

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal/Policy Framework

The "TRNC constitution" provides for freedom of religion, and other "laws" and policies contributed to the generally free practice of religion. The "law" at all levels protects this right in full against abuse, either by "governmental" or private actors.

The "law" does not recognize any specific religion. However, it states that the Vakif, 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 Vakif laws and principles. The Vakif is tax-exempt in its religious activities, but its commercial operations are subject to applicable taxes. It also receives subsidies. No other religious organization is tax-exempt or receives subsidies. The Vakif is the largest landowner in the area administered by Turkish Cypriots.

Turkish Cypriot authorities bar religious discrimination. The 1975 Vienna III Agreement is the basic agreement covering treatment of Greek Cypriots and Maronites living in the area administered by Turkish Cypriots and Turkish Cypriots living in the government-controlled area. Among other things the agreement provides for facilities for religious worship, stating that "the Greek Cypriots at present in the north of the island are free to stay and they will be given every help to lead a normal life, including facilities for education and for the practice of their religion, as well as medical care by their own doctors and freedom of movement in the north."

The following holy days are observed widely in the Turkish Cypriot community: Kurban Bairam, the Birth of the Prophet Muhammad, and Ramadan Bairam.

Religious organizations are not required to register with 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 was rare.

There is instruction in religion, ethics, and comparative religions in two grades of the primary school system; however, it is not compulsory. There is no formal Islamic religious instruction in public schools, and there are no "state-supported" religious schools.

Restrictions on Religious Freedom

The authorities generally respected religious freedom in practice. There was no change in the status of respect for religious freedom by the authorities during the reporting period.

Greek Cypriot Orthodox and Maronite Catholics were prohibited from visiting religious sites located in military zones in the area administered by Turkish Cypriots, since it is "illegal" for civilians to enter military zones. They were allowed to celebrate Mass on a regular basis, without prior permission, at seven sites in the area administered by Turkish Cypriots that had been designated by the Turkish Cypriot authorities; prior permission was required to celebrate Mass at the other estimated 500 religious sites in the area administered by Turkish Cypriots. Some religious groups complained that authorities often took several months to respond to special requests, often not giving a positive answer until only several days before the requested date for a ceremony; this interfered with the ability of those coming from abroad to participate. The Jewish community complained that a cemetery was inaccessible, due to its location in a military zone.

One religious group reported that a senior clergy figure living outside Cyprus was refused entry to the "TRNC" to take part in a pilgrimage during the reporting period.

Religious groups complained that some religious sites, many of which they had little or no access to, were in disrepair and close to collapse. Turkish Cypriot authorities reported having completed the restoration since 2006 of 12 Orthodox churches in the area administered by Turkish Cypriots. The U.S. Government, through a program implemented by the U.N. Development Programme and with the approval of Turkish Cypriot authorities, continued to support a stabilization and restoration project at the Maronite Prophet Elias Monastery to prevent further deterioration.

Several Greek Cypriot Orthodox and Maronite churches have been turned into museums; one religious group complained that certain religious items were being held in these museums against the wishes of the community.

While Turkish Cypriot authorities funded the construction of a number of mosques, construction of facilities for non-Sunni Muslims was not funded despite some groups lacking facilities; on occasion this inhibited religious groups' ability to practice their faith. Alevis reported that they were unable to build a facility due to lack of funding. Alevis also reported that due to "regulations," they were required to conduct funerals inside mosques, contrary to their traditions.

In June 2009 a Turkish-speaking Protestant congregation complained of mistreatment at the hands of Turkish Cypriot authorities and some members of the public, allegedly over fears that members were proselytizing. They also complained that they were unable to register as an "association" and thus could not establish a trust fund, construct a place of worship, or establish a cemetery for congregants.

Some religious groups reported monitoring by Turkish Cypriot "police" during religious and community events.

There were no reports of religious prisoners or detainees in the area administered by Turkish Cypriots.

Forced Religious Conversion

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 the refusal to allow such citizens to be returned to the United States.

Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom

There were few reports of societal abuses or discrimination based on religious affiliation, belief, or practice.

Greek Cypriots continued to report that vandals damaged vacant Greek Orthodox churches and removed religious icons in the area administered by Turkish Cypriots; there were no reported "law enforcement" investigations of these incidents. According to Turkish Cypriot leaders, in response to complaints of vandalism, some locations were fenced for their protection.

In September 2008 the Cyprus Turkish Teachers Union criticized the "government" for not preventing a group of approximately 400 students, funded by the Turkish "Embassy," from going to Turkey for religious instruction during the summer holidays.

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy

The U.S. Government discussed religious freedom with Turkish Cypriot authorities as part of its overall policy to promote human rights.



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