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.