2015 Report on International Religious Freedom: Cyprus - the Area Administered by Turkish Cypriots

Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor
Report
August 10, 2016

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Since 1974 the southern part of Cyprus has been under the authority 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    

Since 1974 the northern part of Cyprus has been run by a Turkish Cypriot administration that 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. The Turkish Cypriot “constitution” refers to the “state” as secular and provides for freedom of religious faith and worship consistent with public order and morals. It prohibits forced participation in worship and religious services and states religious education may be conducted only under “state” supervision. It grants the Islamic Vakf, which manages land that has been donated as an endowment by Muslims for charitable purposes as well as sites of worship, the exclusive right to regulate its internal affairs in accordance with Vakf laws. UNFICYP reported that the number of Christian pilgrims allowed access to religious sites rose during the year. The Turkish Cypriot authorities approved 88 of 128 requests received through UNFICYP for access to Greek Orthodox, Maronite Catholic, and Armenian Orthodox places of worship in the north. Turkish Cypriot authorities reported they allowed church services for the first time in more than 40 years at 14 locations. Some minority religious groups reported police surveillance of their activities and political criticism of Turkish Cypriot converts to other faiths, particularly Christianity. Turkish troops limited access to Maronite villages and churches in Turkish military zones.

Some religious groups reported Turkish Cypriot converts from Islam to other religions, particularly Christianity, faced social ostracism. Religious leaders continued to promote religious dialogue by meeting and arranging visits to places of worship across the “green line.”

Embassy representatives met with Turkish Cypriot representatives to discuss access to religious sites and the ability to hold religious services at the sites without restrictions. Embassy officials also discussed religious freedom issues within the Turkish Cypriot community with representatives of the Armenian Orthodox, Alevi Muslim, Bahai, Roman Catholic, Greek Orthodox, Maronite, Protestant, and Sunni Muslim communities.

Section I. Religious DemographyShare    

According to 2011 census information from the Turkish Cypriot authorities, the population of the area administered by Turkish Cypriots is 286,257. The census contains no data on religious affiliation. Sociologists estimate as much as 97 percent of the population is Sunni Muslim. Religious groups report an estimated 10,000 migrant workers of Turkish, Kurdish, and Arab origin are Alevi Muslims, and there are 100-200 members of the Naqshbandi Sufi order. Other small groups include approximately 330 members of the autocephalous Greek Orthodox Church of Cyprus, 200 members of the Russian Orthodox Church, 150 Bahais, 150 Maronite Catholics, 180 Anglicans, 150 Jews, 300 Turkish-speaking Protestants, and 40 Jehovah’s Witnesses. There are approximately 450 African students who are predominantly Pentecostals and Roman Catholics.

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

“Legal” Framework

The Turkish Cypriot “constitution” refers specifically to a “secular republic” and provides for freedom of conscience and religious faith and unrestricted worship and religious ceremonies provided they do not contravene public order or morals. It prohibits forced prayer, forced attendance at religious services, condemnation based on religious beliefs, and compelling of individuals to disclose their religious beliefs. Religious education may only be conducted under “state” supervision. The “law” does not recognize any specific religion, and individuals cannot “exploit or abuse” religion to establish, even partially, a state based on religious precepts or for political or personal gain. The Vakf, an Islamic foundation that manages property donated as a religious endowment for Turkish Cypriots as well as sites of worship, has the exclusive right to regulate and administer its internal affairs and property in accordance with Vakf laws and principles. Although the “constitution” states the Vakf shall be exempt from all taxation, its commercial operations are subject to applicable taxes. It also receives income from properties it manages. According to the “constitution,” the Turkish Cypriot authorities shall help the Vakf in the execution of Islamic religious services and in meeting the expenses of such services. No other religious organization is tax exempt or receives subsidies from the Turkish Cypriot authorities.

The 1975 Vienna III Agreement covers the treatment of Greek Cypriots and Maronite Catholics living in the area administered by Turkish Cypriots and the treatment of Turkish Cypriots living in the government-controlled area. Among other provisions, the agreement provides for facilities for religious worship for Greek Cypriots, stating they are free to stay and “will be given every help to lead a normal life, including facilities for education and for the practice of their religion.”

Turkish Cypriot “regulations” stipulate Greek Orthodox residents may conduct liturgies or masses led by two designated priests at three designated functional churches in the Karpas Peninsula without seeking permission, and Maronite residents may hold liturgies or masses at four designated functional Maronite churches without seeking permission. Religious groups must submit applications to the authorities for permission to hold religious services at churches or monasteries other than these seven designated churches. Permission is also necessary for priests other than those officially designated to conduct services. Specific permission is required for services in which Cypriots participate who are not residents in the Turkish Cypriot-administered area, such as members of the Greek Orthodox, Maronite Catholic, and Armenian Orthodox Churches. UNFICYP coordinates applications, which must be submitted 10 days before the date of such religious services.

The “Religious Affairs Department” represents Islam in the area administered by the Turkish Cypriots. Whereas the Vakf manages land that has been donated as an endowment by Muslims for charitable purposes, the “Religious Affairs Department” oversees imams’ conduct of prayers and sermons in mosques.

Religious groups are not required to register with authorities as associations, although only associations registered with the “Ministry of Interior” have the right to engage in commercial activity and maintain bank accounts. Religious groups and nonreligious groups have the same registration process and are required to submit the founders’ names and photocopies of their identification cards to the “interior ministry,” along with a copy of the association’s rules and regulations. Associations do not receive tax-exempt status or any “government” benefits or subsidies. Religious groups are not permitted to register as associations if the stated purpose of the association is to provide religious education to their members.

There is compulsory instruction covering religion in grades four through eight in all schools. These classes focus primarily on Islam, but also include sessions on comparative religion. The “Ministry of Education” chooses the curriculum, which is based on a textbook commissioned by the Ministry of Education in Turkey. Non-Muslim students may be excused from attending on an individual basis by schools or teachers at the request of their guardians, but there is no formal process to request such an exemption. At the high school level, religion classes are optional.

There are no provisions or “laws” allowing Turkish Cypriots to engage in conscientious objection to military service, which includes a one-day annual reserve duty requirement in addition to the 12–15 month initial service requirement.

“Government” Practices

Alevi Muslims, who had already registered as an association, established the Alevi Culture Foundation, an NGO, in order to receive funding and donations. The “government” recognized the foundation during the year, the first time it had done so for a non-Sunni religious institution. The foundation had the right to request a tax exemption from the “Ministry of Finance” after providing proof its commercial activities were carried out for charitable purposes, but it had not yet carried out any commercial activities or requested a tax exemption. After it was established, it received 250,000 Turkish Lira ($85,675) from the “government” in May for construction of what would be the first cemevi (Alevi house of worship) in Cyprus. Construction of the cemevi began in 2007 but was delayed for lack of funds. There were no reports of other religious groups or of foundations linked to them attempting to register during the year.

The “Religious Affairs Department” staffed 190-200 mosques, all Sunni, with 360 imams. Members of the majority Sunni religious community voiced concerns the “government” was interfering with religious affairs by selecting imams.

Catholic students at Near East University were granted use of a multipurpose room for celebrating Mass in March. Beginning in November 2014, Catholics at Eastern Mediterranean University also had regular access to campus facilities to celebrate Mass.

Turkish Cypriot authorities restricted access to Greek Orthodox, Maronite Catholic, and Armenian Orthodox places of worship. Greek Orthodox and Maronite Catholics could not freely visit religious sites located in Turkish military zones in the area administered by Turkish Cypriots. One Greek Orthodox monastery was open for prayer but still required special permission for Mass.

Turkish Cypriots eased restrictions on holding regular religious services in certain churches, although they did not approve all requests. UNFICYP reported of 128 requests, 88 were approved. Eleven additional requests sent directly to the Turkish Cypriot authorities were also approved.

The Turkish Cypriot authorities allowed church services to take place in the following 14 churches for the first time in 40-50 years: Panagia Monastery in Agillar/Mandres; Church of Ayios Georgios of Xalona in Bostanci/Zodia; Church of Saint George in Alsancak/Karava; Church of Ayia Irene in Akdeniz/Ayia Irene; Church of Ayios Afxentios in Buyukkonuk/Komi Kepir; Church of Timios Prodromos in Bogazici/Lapathos-Ammochostos; Church of St. Marina in Tepebasi/Diorios; Church of Ayia Foteini in Yesilkoy/Ayios Andronikos; Church of Panagia Galaktotrofousa in Balikesir/Palaikythro; Church of Archangelos Michael in Yenierenkoy/Ayialousa; Church of the Christ the Savior in Gecitkale/Lefkoniko; Church of Saint Epifanios in Yildirim/Milia; and the Church of Artemios in Gazikoy/Afancia.

Religious groups continued to complain that religious items, including icons, were held in storage rooms or displayed in museums against the wishes of the communities to whom they are sacred.

In September the press reported restoration work at the Maronite St. George Church in Kormacit/Kormakitis village had stopped because authorities did not give the necessary permission for the restoration. According to a Maronite representative, the group had applied for the permit at the wrong office. He stated that after the error was discovered, the authorities promptly issued the permit and the restoration was completed in December.

Some non-Sunni Muslims lacked places of worship and funding to construct such facilities. An Alevi NGO reported that initially, due to the lack of a house of worship, Alevis were required to conduct funerals inside mosques, contrary to their traditions. They also said they perceived favoritism in “state” funding toward the Sunni Muslim population through financing of mosque construction and support for administration of mosques.

Turkish Cypriot religious groups reported Muslim parents seeking to send their children to religious summer courses faced strong public criticism from secular community members, particularly local “government” teachers.

Some Alevis and Christians stated that the mandatory religious education in schools was overly focused on Sunni Islam and their children had no formal recourse to opt out of the classes.

Some minority religious groups reported Turkish Cypriot authorities, including the police, monitored their activities. A Greek Orthodox priest reported heavy police presence during church services, including police inside the church videotaping services held by the enclaved Greek Cypriot community (i.e., those living permanently in the north). Visiting Greek Orthodox worshippers were also accompanied by a heavy police escort. Turkish Cypriot representatives stated the purpose of the police presence was to provide security and protect religious icons and artifacts; however, religious groups said they viewed the police presence as intimidation and harassment.

An Orthodox bishop reported the Turkish Cypriot tourism authorities allowed a Turkish television production company to film a scene from the drama “Valley of the Wolves” at the St. Barnabas Monastery in August without informing the Church of Cyprus. The bishop stated he was offended by this, calling it a “desecration.”

Abuses by Foreign Forces and Non-State Actors

According to a representative of the Maronite community, the Turkish military granted Maronites limited access to their churches and villages located within Turkish military zones. The Maronites were allowed to hold Mass once a year in the Church of Ayia Marina. In November the Turkish military gave permission to restore it. The Turkish military also began to clear a road to the church in order to bypass a military zone and cleaned a Maronite cemetery near the village. Maronites were unable to visit the Church of Marki near Kormacit/Kormakitis. They were allowed to conduct low-profile services and make a pilgrimage July 20 to the Monastery of the Prophet Elias. The Maronite Church of Archangelos Michael in the village of Ozhan/Asamatos was also located within a Turkish military zone but did not require permission to function regularly on Sundays.

A representative of the Orthodox Church of Cyprus stated 50-55 religious sites were inaccessible due to being located within Turkish military zones.

Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious FreedomShare    

The Turkish-Speaking Protestant Association leader reported discrimination within the Turkish Cypriot community toward Protestants continued and police paid monthly visits to the association to check on the group.

A representative of the Orthodox Church of Cyprus stated that some religious sites to which they had little or no access were damaged or close to collapse due to decades of neglect.

The Turkish-Speaking Protestant Association reported Turkish Cypriot converts from Islam to other religions, particularly Christianity, faced social ostracism and political criticism. A Turkish Cypriot Protestant leader said members of the Protestant congregation feared openly attending church due to societal discrimination.

The TCCH and the UN Development Program (UNDP) Partnership for the Future continued restoration work at the Greek Orthodox Apostolos Andreas Monastery in the Karpas Peninsula, a popular destination for pilgrims, with an estimated completion date of May 2016.

In January the press reported the European Union and UNDP were providing $3.5 million to restore the 400-year-old Greek Orthodox Agios Pantalemeion Monastery in Camlibel/Myrtou.

In April the TCCH said that, since its inception in 2008, it had restored 18 sites and another 40 sites were in immediate need of restoration. The TCCH announced it would begin minimum conservation measures on a series of 14 cultural heritage sites, including religious sites, to include cleaning, minor repairs, and consolidation work.

Religious leaders continued to promote religious dialogue by meeting and arranging visits to places of worship across the “green line.”

Section IV. U.S. Government PolicyShare    

U.S. embassy representatives met with Turkish Cypriot authorities to discuss access to religious sites and the ability to hold religious services at sites without restrictions. Embassy staff worked in cooperation with the Vakf to ensure the Armenian Orthodox community was allowed to contribute its views regarding the use of the newly restored Armenian church and monastery complex in north Nicosia.

Embassy officials also met with leaders from the Alevi, Bahai, Roman Catholic, Greek Orthodox, Maronite, Protestant, and Sunni communities to discuss access issues and encouraged greater religious freedom.

All references to place names within this report are for reference purposes only and are meant to convey meaning. They should not be interpreted as implying or indicating any political recognition or change in longstanding U.S. policy.