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Diplomacy in Action

2011 Report on International Religious Freedom: Cyprus


Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor
Report
July 30, 2012

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Executive SummaryShare    

The constitution and other laws and policies protect religious freedom and, in practice, the government generally respected religious freedom. The government did not demonstrate a trend toward either improvement or deterioration in respect for and protection of the right to religious freedom. The constitution specifies that the Autocephalous Greek Orthodox Church of Cyprus has the exclusive right to regulate and administer its internal affairs and property in accordance with its holy canons and charter, and is exempt from taxes with regard to religious activity. The constitution recognizes three minority religious groups: Maronite Catholics, Armenian Orthodox, and “Latins” (Roman Catholics). 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. However, the Vakif operated only in the area administered by Turkish Cypriots during the year and did not administer mosques located in the government-controlled area, which served worshippers primarily from Africa, Asia, and the Middle East.

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

The U.S. government discussed religious freedom with the government as part of its overall policy to promote human rights. During the year, embassy staff, including the chief of mission, met with officials, nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), international organizations, and religious leaders from a variety of religious groups to discuss matters of importance to them. Additionally, embassy staff visited sites of religious significance.

Section I. Religious DemographyShare    

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 since Turkish military intervention in 1974. The southern part of the island is under the control of the government of the Republic of Cyprus (ROC), 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 the UNFICYP, separates the two parts. The area administered by Turkish Cypriots is discussed in a separate section in this report.

According to the most recent census information available (2001), 95 percent of the permanent population in the government-controlled area belongs to the Autocephalous Greek Orthodox Church of Cyprus. All other religious groups combined constitute less than 5 percent of the population and include Roman Catholic, Protestant, Muslim, Maronite Catholic, Armenian Orthodox, Jewish, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Baha’i, Buddhist, and other groups.

Recent immigrants and migrant workers generally practice religions different from those of native-born citizens, who are predominantly Greek Orthodox. There is a Buddhist meditation center in Nicosia and a synagogue in Larnaca; both are used primarily by foreign residents. The Jewish community, numbering approximately 2,150, includes a very small number of native Jewish Cypriots and a greater number of Jews who are part of the foreign resident community.

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious FreedomShare    

Legal/Policy Framework

The constitution and other laws and policies protect religious freedom.

The constitution specifies that the Autocephalous Greek Orthodox Church of Cyprus has the exclusive right to regulate and administer its internal affairs and property in accordance with its holy canons and charter. By law, the Church of Cyprus is exempt from taxes with regard to religious activity and 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. No legislative, executive, or other act may contravene or interfere with the Church of Cyprus or the Vakif. However, the Vakif operated only in the area administered by Turkish Cypriots during the reporting year and did not administer mosques located in the government-controlled area. Mosques in government-controlled areas serve worshippers primarily from Africa, Asia, and the Middle East, and receive financial support from the government and, in previous years, from Libya.

The constitution recognizes three minority religious groups: 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 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 provisions, this agreement provides for facilities for religious worship.

In 2010 the minister of education, other government officials, and the teachers union approved the government’s policy that all students have the equal right to use religious symbols, including wearing headscarves, at school.

Religious groups that are not among the five recognized ones are not required to register with the government. If, however, they want to engage in financial transactions and maintain bank accounts, they must register as nonprofit organizations. In order to register, a group must submit through an attorney an application that states the purposes of the nonprofit organization and provides the names of the organization’s directors. Upon approval, nonprofit organizations are tax-exempt and are required to provide annual reports. The Ministry of Commerce reported that no religious groups were denied registration during the reporting year.

There is no prohibition against missionary activity or proselytizing in the government-controlled area. Foreign missionaries must, however, obtain and periodically renew residence permits to live in the country, but renewal requests normally are approved, despite some applicants experiencing delays.

The government requires children in public primary and secondary schools to take instruction in the Greek Orthodox religion. Primary school students of other religions may be exempted from attending religious services and instruction at the request of their guardians. Students in secondary education may be exempted from religious instruction on grounds of religion or conscience, and may be exempted from attending religious services on any grounds at the request of their guardians, or their own, if they are over the age of 16. The request is submitted by the parent/guardian or the student if over 16 to the Ministry of Education, which issues instructions to the school to grant the exemption. The Jehovah’s Witnesses, the largest group that requests exceptions and which in the past had complained about delays and other problems, reported in 2011 that the situation improved, the process is simple, and exemptions are granted promptly in the majority of cases.

Missionaries have the legal right to proselytize, but it is illegal for a missionary to use “physical or moral compulsion” to make religious conversions. Police may investigate missionary activity based on a citizen’s complaint.

Conscientious objectors are exempt from active military duty and from reservist service in the National Guard. They are, however, required to complete an alternative to military service, which can be performed as a civic assignment. In contrast to previous years, the ombudsman’s office did not receive any complaints from conscientious objectors about the procedures used by the government to confirm their conscientious objector status and eligibility for alternative military service. The international nonprofit organization Conscience and Peace Tax International and the Jehovah’s Witnesses reported that the stipulated duration of alternative service for conscientious objectors was punitive compared to military service.

The government observes the following religious holidays as national holidays: Epiphany, Annunciation, Good Friday, Easter Monday, Holy Spirit Day (Pentecost), Assumption, and Christmas.

Government Practices

There were no reports of abuses of religious freedom.

During the year, Jehovah’s Witnesses stated that exemptions from religious instruction were generally granted promptly, with the exception of two new cases in which there were slight delays in confirming the exemption. Jehovah’s Witnesses also reported that their members’ children did not experience difficulties in being exempted from attending school performances containing religious content.

Although nonprofit registrations generally were granted promptly, some religious groups including members of the Baha’i Faith, reported difficulties registering as nonprofit charities and stated that the government was unresponsive to inquiries regarding the status of applications. The difficulties with registration prevented them from being able to open bank accounts or arrange for tax-deductible donations.

Turkish Cypriots enjoyed relatively easy access to religious sites in the government-controlled area. A Turkish Cypriot authority reported, however, that Turkish Cypriot cemeteries and mosques in the villages of Kosi and Aplanda in the Larnaca district were inaccessible because they reportedly were within Greek Cypriot military camps. Moreover, Turkish Cypriot authorities stated Greek Cypriot maintenance of mosques was limited to monuments in the main city centers and tourist areas, and other unused mosques in the government-controlled area were neglected. In addition, Turkish Cypriots stated that access to Hala Sultan mosque, one of the holiest Muslim sites worldwide, was limited to conventional museum hours by the Ministry of Communications and Works’ Department of Antiquities.

The Ministry of Interior 2011 budget for the restoration and maintenance of Muslim places of worship was 814,300 euros ($1,054,152). Additionally, the Department of Antiquities 2011 budget for the same purpose was estimated at 330,000 euros ($427,414). All budgets include labor costs.

The Buddhist community continued to face difficulties finding a site for a permanent temple. The community purchased land outside of Nicosia, but found that building regulations allowed for only 6 percent of the land to be used for habitable structures. The community applied for a variance from the regulation, but the minister of the interior denied it and counter-proposed an exchange of the land for government land. In September the application for the exchange was accepted. In the meantime, the community used a meditation center in Nicosia as a temple.

The Baha’i community reported that, as in previous years, it often faced difficulty burying its dead, as cemeteries generally exist only for recognized religious groups. As a result, Baha’i burials took place in cemeteries for foreign residents used by other denominations.

Several religious groups reported difficulties obtaining visas and residency permits from the government for clergy and student volunteers from countries outside the European Union. Applications and renewals were not processed in a timely manner, and some groups reported that, as a result, some members were forced to leave the country rather than risk being blacklisted for staying in the country illegally.

During the military swearing-in ceremony, Church of Cyprus clergy lead a common prayer. Recruits may be excused from taking part in the prayer, but minority religious groups reported that this option was rarely used because recruits did not want to attract negative attention.

There were no complaints from prisoners in the Open Prison (a special detention section of the ROC’s Central Prison where low-risk prisoners receive special privileges) concerning a lack of adequate religious facilities. An expansion of the Open Prison, however, did not include construction of religious facilities. Inmates in the Open Prison were permitted to visit the mosque and the church located in the closed part of the Central Prison, but only at times different from those permitted for other the inmates.

Improvements and Positive Developments in Respect for Religious Freedom

On November 3, 620 Turkish Cypriots made a pilgrimage at the Hala Sultan Mosque to celebrate Kurban Bayram. It was the first time since 1960 that Kurban Bayram was celebrated at this mosque.

In June the bicommunal Technical Committee on Cultural Heritage established a joint team of technical experts to prepare plans for the restoration of priority monuments in both the area administered by Turkish Cypriots and the government-controlled area.

Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious FreedomShare    

There were reports of societal abuses or discrimination based on religious affiliation, belief, or practice. Anecdotal evidence provided by a human rights NGO indicated that women wearing headscarves encountered more difficulties finding employment, that some landlords were reluctant to rent apartments to Muslim migrants, and, in general, that derogatory language was sometimes employed towards Muslim migrants.

Some representatives of the Jewish community reported that their members were verbally harassed on various occasions throughout the year.

Some religious groups reported that students occasionally experienced negative reactions from teachers and fellow students when they exercised their rights of exemption from religious instruction. Anecdotal evidence suggested that attitudes of fellow students, primarily, and, in some isolated cases, teachers, had not changed.

Some religious groups also reported that Greek Cypriots who converted from the Greek Orthodox religion to other faiths faced social ostracism. However, relations between the Greek Orthodox Church of Cyprus and other religious communities in the government-controlled area were generally cordial.

Section IV. U.S. Government PolicyShare    

The U.S. government discussed religious freedom with the government as part of its overall policy to promote human rights. In the context of its reconciliation programs, the U.S. government supported the work of coalitions that included religious communities seeking to preserve cultural heritage sites, including historic churches and mosques, and promote joint action and mutual respect. Throughout the year, embassy staff, including the chief of mission, met with officials, NGOs, international organizations, and religious leaders of many religions to discuss matters of importance to them. Additionally, embassy staff visited sites of religious significance.





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