2014 Report on International Religious Freedom: Cyprus

Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor
Report
October 14, 2015

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Since 1974 the southern part of Cyprus has been under the control of the government of the Republic of Cyprus, while the northern part, administered by Turkish Cypriots, proclaimed itself the “Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus” (“TRNC”) in 1983. The United States does not recognize the “TRNC,” nor does any country other than Turkey. A substantial number of Turkish troops remained on the island. A buffer zone, or “green line,” patrolled by the UN Peacekeeping Force in Cyprus (UNFICYP), separates the two parts.

Executive SummaryShare    

The constitution protects the freedom to worship, teach, and practice one’s religion. It grants the Church of Cyprus the exclusive right to regulate and administer its internal affairs. Turkish Cypriots were granted access to religious sites in the government-controlled area, including a visit by approximately 1,000 Turkish Cypriots and foreign nationals to Hala Sultan Tekke for Ramadan Bayram prayers. Six mosques in the government-controlled area were open for all five daily prayers and had the necessary facilities for ablutions. The government did not grant permission to religious groups to make upgrades at mosques. The Central Prison management amended prison regulations to allow visits by representatives of any religious group.

The leaders of the main religious groups on the island continued to meet and visit places of worship across the “green line.” The archbishop of the Church of Cyprus invited the Muslim community’s mufti to visit several mosques in the south that have been closed for more than 40 years. The Jewish community reported incidents of property damage and verbal harassment during Jewish religious holidays.

Vice President Biden held a roundtable in Cyprus in May with the archbishop of the Church of Cyprus, the mufti, the Maronite archbishop, the Armenian archbishop, and the Roman Catholic Church representative to Cyprus to promote religious dialogue and tolerance. Embassy staff met with the government, nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), international organizations, and religious leaders to discuss religious freedom issues, including access to religious sites island-wide. Embassy officials visited sites of religious significance, and encouraged religious leaders to make reciprocal visits to places of religious significance on either side of the “green line.”

Section I. Religious DemographyShare    

The U.S. government estimates the total population of the island to be 1.2 million (July 2014 estimate). According to an October 2011 census by the government of the Republic of Cyprus, the population of the government-controlled area is more than 858,000. According to information from the 2011 census released in May, 89 percent of the population in the government-controlled area is Greek Orthodox Christian and 1.8 percent is Muslim. Other religious groups include Roman Catholics, Protestants, Maronite Catholics, Armenian Orthodox, Jews, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Bahais, and Buddhists. Recent immigrants and migrant workers are predominantly Roman Catholic, Muslim, and Buddhist. Most of the approximately 2,300 Jews are foreign-born residents.

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious FreedomShare    

Legal Framework

The constitution protects the right of individuals to profess their faith and provides for freedom of worship, teaching, and practice or observance, either individually or collectively, in private or in public. The constitution specifies all religions whose doctrines or rites are not secret are free and equal before the law. It protects the right to change one’s religion and prohibits the use of physical or moral compulsion to make a person change, or prevent a person from changing, his or her religion.

The constitution states the Church of Cyprus has the exclusive right to regulate and administer its internal affairs and property in accordance with its canons and charter. By law, the Church of Cyprus only pays taxes on commercial activities.

The constitution sets guidelines for the Vakf, a Muslim institution regulating religious activity for Turkish Cypriots. The Vakf is also tax exempt and 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 Vakf. The Vakf operates only in the area administered by Turkish Cypriots and does not administer mosques located in the government-controlled area; the government serves as caretaker for the latter. Mosques in government-controlled areas receive financial support from the government.

The constitution recognizes three other religious groups: Maronite Catholics, Armenian Orthodox, and “Latins” (Cypriot Roman Catholics). All are exempt from taxes and eligible for government subsidies for their religious institutions.

Religious groups not among the five recognized in the constitution are not required to register with the government. To engage in financial transactions and maintain bank accounts, however, they must register as nonprofit organizations. In order to register, a religious group must submit through an attorney an application stating its purpose and providing the names of its directors. Religious groups registered as nonprofit organizations are tax exempt and must provide annual reports; they are not eligible for government subsidies. Foreign missionaries must obtain and periodically renew residence permits to live in the country.

The government requires Greek Orthodox religious instruction in public primary and secondary schools. The Ministry of Education (MOE) may excuse primary school students of other religious groups from attending religious services and instruction at the request of their guardians, but Greek Orthodox children do not have the option of opting out. All secondary school students may be excused by the ministry from religious instruction on grounds of religion or conscience, and they may be excused from attending religious services on any grounds at the request of their guardians, or at their own request if over the age of 16.

The law provides for an independent government ombudsman and tasks this official with protecting citizens’ rights from actions or decisions made by the government which are contrary to the law, violate human rights, or do not constitute proper administrative behavior.

Conscientious objectors on religious grounds are exempt from active military duty and from reservist service in the National Guard but must complete alternative service. There are two options available for conscientious objectors: unarmed military service, which is a maximum of five months longer than the normal 24-month service; or social service, which is a maximum of nine months longer than normal service, but requires fewer hours per day.

Government Practices

Turkish Cypriots were granted access to religious sites in the government-controlled area; however, Muslim community leaders stated the government had not granted them full access to and administration of mosques located on cultural heritage sites. Eight mosques in the government-controlled area were open. Six of those were available for all five daily prayers and had the necessary facilities for ablutions. A Muslim leader requested, but had not yet been granted, permission to make improvements at the functioning mosques.

Turkish Cypriots stated the Ministry of Communications and Works Department of Antiquities kept the Hala Sultan Tekke mosque open only during conventional museum hours, thus limiting access to the mosque to only two of the five daily prayer times. The imam had to apply to the Ministry of the Interior for permission to open the mosque after 5:00 p.m. In order to cross the “green line” without identification checks to visit religious sites, Turkish Cypriots were required to submit their requests to the UNFICYP, which then facilitated the approval process with the government. The UNFICYP reported that of the three requests made by Turkish Cypriot authorities, two pilgrimages to Hala Sultan Tekke were approved, but a requested celebration of Kurban Bayram (Eid al Adha) at Hala Sultan Tekke did not take place because of the lack of an agreement on the crossing point to be used for the purpose.

Throughout the year, the government facilitated the crossing of thousands of Turkish Cypriots and foreign nationals south of the “green line” to visit Hala Sultan Tekke to conduct prayers and services. On July 28, the police escorted about 1,000 Turkish Cypriots, Turks, and other foreign nationals to Hala Sultan Tekke for Ramadan Bayram prayers. On November 22, the press reported the government again facilitated the crossing of over 1,000 Turkish Cypriots and Turks from the north to celebrate the first day of the Islamic calendar at Hala Sultan Tekke.

The Ministry of Commerce approved all applications submitted during the year from religious groups registering as nonprofit organizations.

The international NGO Conscience and Peace Tax International and the Jehovah’s Witnesses continued to report on the longer duration of alternative service for conscientious objectors compared to military service, which they considered to be a punitive measure. In a report prepared in April, Conscience and Tax Peace International noted the government had not reduced the length of service for conscientious objectors. The report also stated the submission of conscientious objector status applications to the Ministry of Defense did not constitute an independent and impartial decision making process. The ombudsman’s office did not receive any complaints from conscientious objectors about the procedures the government used to confirm their conscientious objector status and eligibility for alternative military service.

A number of religious groups said the government’s reported reluctance to issue visas and residency permits to individuals from countries outside the European Union (EU) had affected them. The Jewish community said student volunteers faced difficulties obtaining government permission to extend their residency, and the Catholic Church said it had difficulties regarding the extension of residency permits of clergy from foreign countries.

Military recruits were required to take part in a common prayer led by Church of Cyprus clergy during swearing-in ceremonies. Recruits of other faiths, atheists, and those who did not wish to take the oath for reasons of conscience were not required to raise their hand during the swearing-in ceremony. They instead gave a pledge of allegiance at a separate gathering.

The Central Prison management amended prison regulations to allow visits by representatives of any religious group, not only representatives of the group with which the prisoner had declared affiliation upon admission to prison. In previous years, some prisoners had complained that prison management restricted their religious rights. The ombudsman had also recommended a change in policy. The ombudsman did not report any new complaints concerning prisoners’ religious rights.

The Jehovah’s Witnesses, who had previously reported problems obtaining exemptions for children from religious instruction, stated the MOE granted all requested exemptions during the year. They also reported their children had not experienced difficulties in being excused from attending school performances containing religious content. The ombudsman’s office received one complaint that a Jehovah’s Witness student who had been exempted from religious instruction was punished with unexcused absences for not attending religious instruction classes, and the ombudsman’s office was investigating the complaint at year’s end. The ombudsman continued to monitor implementation of the MOE’s policy on exemptions and maintained an ongoing dialogue with the MOE on religious freedom in education.

In February the ombudsman issued a report on a 2013 complaint by the Turkish Cypriot parents of students in Nicosia’s English School over the school board’s failure to include the religious Kurban Bayram holiday as an official school holiday. The English School was the only secondary school in Nicosia designed to be bicommunal and had approximately 150 Turkish Cypriot students who commuted from the area administered by the Turkish Cypriots. In 2013, the presidential commissioner had urged the school board to make Kurban Bayram an official school holiday, but the school board had decided instead to give all Muslim students and faculty three days of excused absence during the Kurban Bayram holidays instead. The ombudsman’s report recommended the school board revise its decision and consider making all main Muslim holidays official school holidays. In September the Supreme Court rejected the Turkish Cypriot parents’ petition for a judicial order requiring the English School to establish Kurban Bayram as an official school holiday. The Supreme Court ruled the English school was not a public authority and was not obligated to accede to the parents’ request.

Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious FreedomShare    

Because religion and ethnicity are often closely linked, it is difficult to categorize many incidents as being solely based on religious identity. Those who were not members of the prevailing religious group said they often feared negative social reactions if they chose to refrain from participating in public ceremonies that were religious in nature. Likewise, Greek Cypriots who converted from Greek Orthodoxy to other faiths said they sometimes faced social ostracism. However, relations between the Church of Cyprus and other religious communities in the government-controlled area reportedly were cordial.

Representatives of the Jewish community reported incidents of property damage and verbal harassment. The Jewish Community Center in Larnaca reported the water meter of the Jewish cemetery was destroyed and removed two times during the year. The center also reported three of their students were harassed on their way home during the holiday of Sukkot.

The Technical Committee on Cultural Heritage (TCCH), one of the bicommunal working groups set up as part of the UN-facilitated peace talks, identified cultural heritage sites throughout the island in need of emergency preservation measures. These sites included four mosques in the government-controlled area. On September 11, the TCCH announced the start of emergency preservation works at the Evretou and Tserkezoi mosques in the government-controlled area.

The leaders of the main religious groups on the island continued to meet regularly and visit places of worship on both sides of the buffer zone. In February all principal religious leaders, including the archbishop of the Church of Cyprus, the mufti, the Maronite archbishop, the Armenian archbishop, and the patriarchal Latin vicar in Cyprus, made a statement announcing their support for the Joint Declaration by the Greek Cypriot and Turkish Cypriot leaders on the resumption of UN-led settlement negotiations. In March the archbishop of the Church of Cyprus hosted a meeting in the government-controlled area for all religious leaders on the island, during which they exchanged views on the restoration of monuments and holy sites. The archbishop of the Church of Cyprus said all the religious communities were interested in the restoration of monuments and holy sites, and he and the mufti were working together to this end.

Also in March the Mufti attended the name day celebration of the Maronite archbishop in the south. On June 3, the mufti visited and prayed at the Taht El Kale mosque in Nicosia, the first visit by a mufti to this mosque in 51 years. In September the archbishop of the Church of Cyprus and the mufti together visited the Great Mosque of Paphos, also known as Ebubekir Mosque (formerly Ayia Sophia Church), and the Hasan Aga mosque. The Great Mosque was opened for prayers for the first time in 40 years.

Section IV. U.S. Government PolicyShare    

Embassy officials met frequently with the government to discuss religious freedom issues, including access to religious sites on either side of the “green line” dividing Cyprus.

On May 22, Vice President Biden met with religious leaders including the archbishop of the Church of Cyprus, the mufti, the Maronite archbishop, the Armenian archbishop, and the Roman Catholic Church representative to Cyprus and discussed the ongoing religious dialogue among the main religious leaders. Embassy officers also met with NGOs to discuss religious freedom issues such as access, dialogue, and tolerance.

Embassy staff observed religious ceremonies at places of worship where special permission was sometimes required, such as at the Hala Sultan Tekke mosque. Embassy staff regularly visited sites of religious significance and met with representatives of the Muslim community to listen to their concerns about access to religious sites. Embassy officials encouraged the reciprocal visits between Greek Orthodox and Muslim leaders to places of worship on either side of the “green line.”