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2011 Report on International Religious Freedom: Cyprus - the area administered by Turkish Cypriots


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

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Executive SummaryShare    

Since 1974 the northern part of the island has been administered by Turkish Cypriot authorities. In 1983 it proclaimed itself the “Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus” (“TRNC”). The United States does not recognize the “TRNC,” nor does any other country except Turkey. The “basic law” and other “laws” in the area generally protect religious freedom; however, the politically divisive environment has resulted in restrictions on religious freedom in practice, particularly for Greek Cypriot Orthodox, Armenian Orthodox, and Maronite Christians. The “law” refers specifically to a “secular republic” and does not recognize any specific religion. It states, however, that the Vakif, which 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 income from properties it manages. No other religious organization in the area is tax-exempt.

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

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

Section I. Religious DemographyShare    

In the area administered by the Turkish Cypriots, nominally 98 percent of population is Sunni Muslim. An estimated 10,000 mostly immigrant workers from Turkey of Turkish, Kurdish, or Arab origin, are Alevis. There are also followers of other schools of Islam. There is a Turkish Cypriot Baha’i community of approximately 200 persons, a small Jewish community of foreign expatriates, a Russian Orthodox Church of approximately 200 persons, and a Jehovah’s Witness community of approximately 40 members. Most non-Muslims residing in the area are foreigners from Western Europe who are generally members of the Roman Catholic or Anglican churches.

The large majority of the secular Turkish Cypriot community observes Islamic holidays through cultural events and family gatherings, rather than attending service or through specifically religious ceremonies. This is in contrast to students, residents, immigrants, and workers of Turkish, Kurdish, or Arab origin who celebrate and practice most of the spiritual and traditional aspects of their religions through mosque services.

Section II. Status of “Government” Respect for Religious FreedomShare    

Legal/Policy Framework

The “basic law” and other “laws” and policies in the area administered by Turkish Cypriots generally did not protect religious freedom. The “law” refers specifically to a “secular republic.” The “law” does not recognize any specific religion. It states, however, that the Vakif, which 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 income from properties it manages. No other religious organization in the area is tax-exempt.

The 1975 Vienna III Agreement covers the 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, 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.”

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 provisions or “laws” allowing Turkish Cypriots to engage in conscientious objection to military service.

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

“Government” Practices

There were no reports of abuses of religious freedom in the area administered by Turkish Cypriots. The politically divisive environment has resulted in restrictions on religious freedom, particularly for Greek Cypriot Orthodox, Armenian Orthodox, and Maronite Christians.

Some religious groups reported that their activities were monitored by Turkish Cypriot authorities, including “police,” and the monitoring was perceived as intimidation and harassment. They reported increased police presence, compared to previous years, during church services. A resident Greek Cypriot Orthodox priest reported that the “police” were questioning him with increased frequency about his activities.

Greek Cypriot Orthodox and Maronite Catholics continued to be prohibited from visiting most religious sites located in military zones in the area administered by Turkish Cypriots. The Jewish community reported that a cemetery remained inaccessible, due to its location in a military zone.

In February, authorities in the area administered by Turkish Cypriots revised regulations related to religious services for Greek Cypriot Orthodox and Maronite Catholics residents. Turkish Cypriot authorities announced that Greek Cypriots and Maronite Catholics resident in the north could hold liturgies or masses conducted by designated priests at designated churches in their areas of residence without seeking permission. Permission is required for religious services to be held at churches or monasteries other than those six designated by authorities, for religious services conducted by priests other than those with official designation, and for services that include participants who are not residents in the area.

Some religious groups complained that authorities often took several months to respond to requests for permission to conduct ceremonies, often not providing answers until only days before the requested dates. A Greek Cypriot Orthodox Bishop reported that an April 7 request to conduct a liturgy at the Church of Saint George on April 25 was denied only on April 20, without justification. A second request submitted on May 5 to conduct a liturgy at the same church on June 4 was denied on May 31, with the explanation that the church had been handed over to the “TRNC Ministry of Education, Youth and Sports” for use as a youth center.

In March Turkish Cypriot officials at Pergamos crossing point stopped a car with three Greek Cypriot passengers and confiscated 204 religious books, reportedly destined for students and faculty of the Greek Cypriot schools in the north.

The Turkish Cypriot authorities did not allow a Greek Cypriot Orthodox bishop, whose authority is not recognized by Turkish Cypriot officials, to lead services during July, August, and November.

Turkish Cypriot Murat Kanatli has declared his conscientious objection to the one-day annual reserve duty requirement since 2009. In June he appeared in “military court” on charges relating to his refusal to serve. In December, the “Military Court” in the north referred the case to the “Constitutional Court” on the basis of freedom of thought and expression provisions. The case has prompted several additional declarations of conscientious objection.

Some groups complained that some religious sites, to which they had little or no access, were damaged or close to collapse. The most recent reports indicate that Turkish Cypriot authorities have spent 546,430 Turkish lira ($346,000) since 2006 to complete the restoration of 15 Greek Cypriot Orthodox churches in the area administered by Turkish Cypriots. Some Greek Cypriot Orthodox and Maronite churches were converted to other uses. One religious group complained that religious items were being held in museums against the wishes of the community.

While Turkish Cypriot authorities facilitated the construction of a number of mosques with funding from Turkey, construction of facilities for non-Sunni Muslims remained unfunded even though some groups lacked facilities.

Alevis, recognized by Turkish Cypriot authorities as only an association and not as a religious group, reported they were unable to build a cem evi (house of worship) for gatherings due to lack of funding. They also reported that due to “regulations,” as well as lack of a house of worship, they were required to conduct funerals inside mosques, contrary to their traditions. As an alternative, the Alevis were raising funds for the construction of a cultural center and place of worship through private donations.

A Turkish-speaking Protestant congregation reported that authorities continued to be unresponsive to the group’s application to obtain legal status as an “association,” and reportedly requested that the congregation provide 15 potential names for their association that did not include any religious words. The group’s inability to register to date prevented them from establishing a trust fund and purchasing property.

There is compulsory instruction in religion, culture, and ethics in grades four through eight in all schools. At the high school level, such instruction is optional. There is no formal Islamic religious instruction in public schools. There are no “state-supported” religious schools.

Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious FreedomShare    

There were 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. According to Turkish Cypriot authorities, “police” closely investigated all such complaints of vandalism.

In May, the 200-year-old Greek Orthodox Chapel of Saint Thekla was demolished, reportedly by accident. The Turkish Cypriot authorities publicly condemned the demolition and announced they would rebuild it. The driver of the bulldozer that demolished the chapel was fined 250 Turkish liras ($140) and ordered to pay 40,000 Turkish liras ($22,468) as compensation to the “antiquities department.” At the end of the year, the “antiquities department” had yet to begin restoration.

A “state-supported” religious department opened in November at a high school was vehemently protested by many teacher unions who support secular education as a key part of Turkish Cypriot identity.

In a largely secular community, Turkish Cypriot religious authorities reported that Muslim parents seeking to send their children to attend religious summer courses on a voluntary basis faced strong public criticism, particularly from local teachers.

Some religious groups reported that Turkish Cypriot converts from Islam to other religions faced social ostracism and, in at least one instance, job loss from a private sector position that they claimed was caused by their religious conversion. This group did not provide specific evidence to support this claim.

Section IV. U.S. Government PolicyShare    

The U.S. government discussed religious freedom with Turkish Cypriot authorities 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 include religious communities seeking to preserve cultural heritage sites, including historic churches and mosques, and to promote joint action and mutual respect. Throughout the year, embassy staff including the chief of mission met with officials, NGOs, and religious leaders of many faiths to discuss matters of importance to them. Additionally, embassy staff visited sites of religious significance.





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