An official website of the United States Government Here's how you know

Official websites use .gov

A .gov website belongs to an official government organization in the United States.

Secure .gov websites use HTTPS

A lock ( ) or https:// means you’ve safely connected to the .gov website. Share sensitive information only on official, secure websites.

Area Administered by Turkish Cypriots

Read A Section: The Area Administered By Turkish Cypriots

Republic of Cyprus 

Since 1974, the southern part of Cyprus has been under the control of the Government of the Republic of Cyprus.  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 remain on the island.  A “green line,” or buffer zone (which is over 110 miles long and several miles wide in places) patrolled by the UN Peacekeeping Force in Cyprus (UNFICYP), separates the two parts.  This report is divided into two parts:  the Republic of Cyprus and the area administered by Turkish Cypriots.  For areas in the north that have different Greek and Turkish names, both are listed (e.g., Kormakitis/Korucam).

Executive Summary

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 stipulates religious education may be conducted only under “state” supervision. The “constitution” grants the Vakf the exclusive right to regulate its internal affairs. Turkish Cypriot authorities continued to grant improved access to Greek Orthodox religious sites compared with previous years. The “Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA)” said during the year it approved 156 of 203 total requests to hold religious services during the year, compared with 118 of 153 requests in 2018. Turkish-Speaking Protestant Associations (TSPA) representatives continued to report police surveillance of their activities.

The TSPA said Turkish Cypriots who converted to other faiths often experienced societal criticism. The TCCH reported completing restoration of three more religious sites – two archeological sites that have basilicas and a minaret of a mosque – and said the restoration of five churches continued at year’s end. Mufti of Cyprus Atalay and Church of Cyprus Archbishop Chrysostomos II met throughout the year and arranged visits to places of worship across the buffer zone. In February the leaders of the Greek Orthodox, Muslim, Maronite Catholic, Armenian Orthodox, and Roman Catholic communities renewed their plea for the restoration of St. James Church and St. George Church, two Greek Orthodox churches located in the buffer zone.

In May the U.S. Ambassador met with Mufti of Cyprus Atalay, who was also head of the “Religious Affairs Department,” to discuss cooperation among religious leaders and access to religious sites. Embassy officials met with representatives at the “MFA” and the Vakf to discuss unrestricted access to religious sites. In September embassy officials attended a Greek Orthodox worship service at Panagia Lysi Church, the first service held in the church since 1974. Embassy officials continued to meet with leaders from Sunni and Alevi Muslim, Armenian and Greek Orthodox, Maronite, Roman Catholic, and Protestant communities to discuss access to religious sites and instances of religious-based discrimination.

Section I. Religious Demography

According to 2011 census information from the Turkish Cypriot authorities, the most recent data available, the population of the area administered by Turkish Cypriots is 286,000. The census contains no data on religious affiliation. Sociologists estimate as much as 97 percent of the population is Sunni Muslim. The Alevi Culture Association estimates that approximately 10,000 immigrants of Turkish, Kurdish, and Arab origin and their descendants are Alevi Muslims. The TSPA estimates there are 1,000 Turkish-speaking Protestants. The government of the Republic of Cyprus estimates 314 members of the Church of Cyprus and 69 Maronite Catholics reside in the area administered by Turkish Cypriots. According to sociologists, other groups include Russian Orthodox, Anglicans, Baha’is, Jews, and Jehovah’s Witnesses. According to “Ministry of Education (MOE)” statistics for the 2017-18 academic year, there were slightly more than 90,000 foreign students enrolled at universities in the area administered by the Turkish Cypriots. Of these, 61 percent were Muslim Turks, and the rest were predominantly Christians and Muslims from more than 140 different countries.

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

Legal Framework

The Turkish Cypriot “constitution” states the territory is 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 individuals to disclose their religious beliefs. It stipulates religious education requires “state” approval and may only be conducted under “state” supervision, but the “law” allows summer religious knowledge courses to be taught in mosques without “MOE” approval. The “law” does not recognize exclusively 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.

According to the “constitution,” the Vakf 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. The “constitution” does not explicitly recognize religious groups other than the Vakf. According to the “constitution,” 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 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. The agreement states 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 priests designated by the Orthodox Church at three designated functional churches in the Karpas Peninsula without advance notification or permission: Agia Triada Church in Agia Triada/Sipahi, Agia Triada Church in Rizokarpaso/Dipkarpaz, and Agios Synesios Church in Rizokarpaso/Dipkarpaz. According to the “MFA,” Maronite Catholic residents may hold liturgies or masses led by Maronite-designated clergy without seeking permission at three designated functional Maronite churches: Agios Georgios Church in Kormakitis/Korucam, Timios Stavros Church in Karpasia/Karpasa, and Panagia Church in Kampyli/Hisarkoy.

Greek Orthodox, Maronite Catholic, and Armenian Orthodox worshippers must submit applications to the authorities for permission to hold religious services at churches or monasteries other than these six designated churches, including at restored religious heritage sites. For the authorities to consider an application the date should be of significance to that religious group; the church or monastery must be structurally sound; it must not be located in a military zone, with exceptions for some Maronite churches; it must not have a dual use, for example, as a museum; there should be no complaints from local Turkish Cypriot residents; and police must be available to provide security. Permission is also necessary for priests other than those officially predesignated to conduct services. Specific permission is required for individuals who do not reside in the Turkish Cypriot-administered area, including members of the Greek Orthodox, Maronite Catholic, and Armenian Orthodox Churches, to participate. UNFICYP coordinates these applications, which religious groups must submit 10 days before the date of the requested service.

The mufti heads the “Religious Affairs Department,” which represents Islam in the area administered by Turkish Cypriots and functions as a civil authority. Whereas the Vakf manages Muslim-donated property as an endowment for charitable purposes, the “Religious Affairs Department” oversees how imams conduct prayers and deliver Friday sermons in mosques.

Religious groups are not required to register with authorities as associations to assemble or worship, but only associations registered with the “Ministry of Interior (MOI)” have the right to engage in commercial activity and maintain bank accounts. Religious groups and nonreligious groups have the same registration process, and they are required to submit the founders’ names and photocopies of their identification cards to the “MOI,” 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 mandatory religious instruction in grades four through eight in all schools, public and private. These classes focus primarily on Sunni Islam but also include sessions on comparative religion. The “MOE” chooses the curriculum, which is based on a textbook commissioned by the Ministry of Education in Turkey. Students may opt out of mandatory religion courses in grades six through eight. At the high school level, religion classes are optional.

There are no provisions or “laws” allowing conscientious objection to mandatory military service, which requires a 12-15-month initial service period and one-day annual reserve duty. The penalty for refusing to complete mandatory military service is up to three years’ imprisonment, a fine of up to 10,800 Turkish lira ($1,800), or both. “Government” Practices

“Government” Practices

Three Greek Orthodox churches, Apostolos Andreas, St. Barnabas, and St. Mamas Churches, were again open for prayers throughout the year, as they had been in previous years, but Turkish Cypriot authorities continued to require advance notification for religious services there. While St. Mamas and St. Barnabas Churches functioned as museums and were only open during working hours, the Greek Orthodox priest held the key to Apostolos Andreas Monastery, according to the “MFA.” According to the “MFA,” services took place for the first time since 1974 at four Greek Orthodox churches during the year. The four churches were Panayia Eleousa Church in Trypimeni/Tirmen Famagusta Area; Ayia Paraskevi in Angastina/Aslankoy Famagusta; Ayios Theodoros Church in Lapithos/Lapta; and Panayia in Lysi/Akdogan.

According to statistics reported by the “MFA,” authorities continued to grant improved access to Greek Orthodox places of worship compared with previous years. UNFICYP reported the “MFA” approved 83 of 129 requests it received to facilitate religious services at churches in the northern part of the island during the year, compared with 90 approvals of 123 requests in 2018. The “MFA” reported it approved 156 out of 203 total requests (including both UNFICYP-facilitated requests and requests submitted directly to the “MFA”) to hold religious services during the year, compared with 118 approvals of 153 requests in 2018. A Greek Orthodox Church representative said Turkish Cypriot authorities continued to deny access requests without explanation, stating the list of criteria a request must meet is “self-explanatory.” Orthodox representatives continued to report the “MFA” sometimes approved applications with insufficient time before the dates of requested religious services, resulting in cancellations or low attendance. Armenian Orthodox leaders said they had not submitted religious access requests during the year partly out of frustration with delayed approvals in prior years. A Greek Orthodox representative stated 63 religious sites remained inaccessible due to being located within Turkish military zones or the buffer zone.

In April Turkish Cypriot authorities again allowed Greek Orthodox worshippers to hold Good Friday church services at St. George Exorinos Church in Famagusta.

A Maronite community representative said the Turkish military continued to restrict access to the Church of Archangelos Michael in the village of Asomatos/Ozhan. Maronite representatives continued to report being required to submit a list of persons planning to attend Sunday services by the preceding Tuesday. The “MFA” said this was because the Church of Archangelos Michael is located within a military zone. The “MFA” said it required only advance notification, not a request for access, to hold Sunday services and that no one was refused admittance during the year. According to the “MFA,” the Turkish military again allowed Maronites to celebrate Mass in Ayia Marina on July 17, the name day of Ayia Marina, and denied Maronites access to the Church of Marki near Kormakitis/Korucam. A Maronite representative said Turkish Cypriot authorities allowed services at Panagia Church in Kampyli/Hisarkoy without prior permission only on August 15 for the Assumption of the Virgin observation.

Armenian Orthodox representatives said continued limitations on access imposed by Turkish Cypriot authorities prevented them from fully renovating and maintaining the Sourp Magar Monastery.

The TSPA reported police continued to monitor its activities, asking specific questions about TSPA members and ceremonies. According to the TSPA, in April police interrupted a training for young pastors organized by TSPA at a hotel in Koma Yialou/Kumyali, questioning and intimidating participants.

According to the Alevi Culture Association, the first phase of construction on an Alevi house of worship (cemevi) and cultural complex was completed in July. The association said the six million Turkish lira ($1 million) provided by the “government” for the internal design and construction of the building was insufficient for connecting electricity and water to the complex, establishing a morgue and kitchen, and finishing the external design. The Alevi Culture Association continued to say it perceived favoritism in “state” funding toward the Sunni Muslim population through financing of mosque construction and administration.

According to local press reports, the Turkish government provided much of the aid to fund construction of Sunni Muslim mosques.

In July the “Ministry of Education” announced a protocol was signed with Turkey to open the Religious Anatolia High School within the premises of Hala Sultan Religious High School, a public school. Secular Turkish Cypriot groups criticized the protocol, stating it imposed Islam on secular Turkish Cypriots. In August the Secondary Education Teacher’s Union criticized the Hala Sultan Religious High School administration and the “Ministry of Education” for organizing a competition with prizes for students who could recite the hadith.

The “Religious Affairs Department” continued to appoint and fund all 205 imams at the 210 Sunni mosques in the northern part of the island.

A representative of the Church of Cyprus again stated some religious sites, to which Church officials had little or no access, were deteriorating. Since 1974 the Church of Cyprus has been unable to access St. James Church in the buffer zone. In February the already damaged church partially collapsed amid heavy rains.

Greek Orthodox religious groups continued to state authorities placed religious items, including icons, in storage rooms or displayed them in museums, against the wishes of the communities to whom they were sacred. In January local press reported the international NGO Walk of Truth recovered four fragments of religious frescoes removed from churches in the north after 1974 and returned them to the Republic of Cyprus. Two of the frescoes were identified as belonging to Panayia Absinthiotissa Church and Monastery in Sychari/Asagi Taskent.

Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom

The TSPA continued to report societal discrimination toward Protestants, including denial of access to venues to hold religious events and verbal harassment. For example, in April a TSPA representative said local authorities in Karavas/Alsancak canceled a previously approved Easter celebration on the day of the event. The TSPA said Turkish Cypriots who converted to other faiths, particularly Christianity, faced societal criticism. The TSPA stated a Turkish Cypriot security forces member stopped attending church services due to pressure from colleagues in the military.

Muslim and Orthodox religious leaders continued to promote religious tolerance by meeting and arranging pilgrimages for their congregations to places of worship across the “green line,” including Hala Sultan Tekke Mosque in the Republic of Cyprus and St. Barnabas in the area administered by Turkish Cypriots.

On February 14, the leaders of the Greek Orthodox, Armenian Orthodox, Muslim, Maronite Catholic, and Roman Catholic communities issued a joint statement calling for the restoration of the Church of Saint James and the Church of Saint George located in the buffer zone in Nicosia, renewing a joint plea they made in 2014. On March 19, representatives of each of the five religious communities visited the partially collapsed Greek Orthodox Church of Saint James in the buffer zone in Nicosia.

The TCCH reported it had completed restoration of two religious heritage sites: the Basilica of Agia Triada and the Agios Philon archeological site (site of a Byzantine church and early Christian episcopal complex). Neither was functioning as an active place of worship following the restoration, and no religious group requested to use either site for religious purposes during the year. The TCCH continued restoring another five religious sites. The TCCH and the UN Development Program Partnership for the Future continued restoration work on the Greek Orthodox Apostolos Andreas Monastery in the Karpas Peninsula, a popular destination for pilgrims. The TCCH reported the tendering process for the second phase of the restoration had been completed; it anticipated work to commence by the end of the year.

In March local press reported three individuals stole a 300-kilogram (660-pound) church bell from the nine-meter (30-foot) tower of the recently renovated St. Panteleimon Monastery in Myrtou/Camlibel. According to press reports, police arrested three suspects and found the bell in a barn belonging to one of the suspects in Avlona/Gayretkoy village. The suspects were released on bail pending trial, which had not begun as of year’s end.

In May police arrested the caretaker of Selimiye Mosque (formerly Agia Sophia Cathedral) and three of his colleagues, who were reportedly attempting to sell two church bells and five chandeliers that were kept in the mosque’s storage room. The “Religious Affairs Department” announced it had suspended the personnel involved in the theft and recovered all the items; the police investigation continued at year’s end.

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement

In May the Ambassador met with Mufti of Cyprus Atalay, head of the “Religious Affairs Department,” to encourage cooperation among faith communities and discuss ways to expand access to religious sites on both sides of the island. Embassy representatives continued to meet with Turkish Cypriot authorities at the “MFA” and the Vakf to discuss access to religious sites and the ability to hold religious services at sites without restrictions.

On September 8, embassy officials attended a Greek Orthodox service, the first service since 1974, at the Panagia Lysi Church. Embassy officials discussed issues pertaining to religious freedom, including instances of societal discrimination within the Turkish Cypriot community, with representatives of the Armenian Orthodox, Alevi Muslim, Roman Catholic, Greek Orthodox, Maronite, Protestant, and Sunni Muslim communities. Embassy officials frequently discussed with Greek Orthodox, Maronite Catholic, and Armenian Orthodox leaders concerns about restricted access to churches and other religious sites in the area administered by Turkish Cypriots.

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.

Read a Section

Republic of Cyprus 

Cyprus

Read A Section: Republic Of Cyprus

The Area Administered by Turkish Cypriots 

Since 1974, the southern part of Cyprus has been under the control of the Government of the Republic of Cyprus.  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 remain on the island.  A “green line,” or buffer zone (which is over 110 miles long and several miles wide in places) patrolled by the UN Peacekeeping Force in Cyprus (UNFICYP), separates the two parts.  This report is divided into two parts:  the Republic of Cyprus and the area administered by Turkish Cypriots.  For areas in the north that have different Greek and Turkish names, both are listed (e.g., Kormakitis/Korucam).

Executive Summary

The constitution prohibits religious discrimination and protects the freedom to worship, teach, and practice one’s religion. It grants the Greek Orthodox Church of Cyprus the exclusive right to regulate and administer its internal affairs and recognizes the Vakf, an Islamic institution that manages sites of worship and property Muslims have donated, as a charitable endowment. According to press reports, on September 6, the headmaster of a public secondary school instructed a Muslim student wearing a headscarf to leave the school and return only after removing it. Then minister of education Kostas Champiaouris ordered an investigation of the case and transferred the headmaster from the school. Two of the eight functioning mosques under the guardianship of the Ministry of Interior continued to lack bathroom and ablution facilities. The Department of Antiquities continued to limit access to Hala Sultan Tekke Mosque to only two of the five daily prayers, although it routinely granted expanded access during Ramadan and at the request of the imam. The imam of Hala Sultan Tekke Mosque said Department of Antiquities security guards refused to let some non-Muslim tourists attend Friday prayers, despite the imam having invited them to attend. The government continued to allow non-Cypriot nationals living in the area administered by Turkish Cypriots to travel to Hala Sultan Tekke Mosque for pilgrimages during Eid al-Fitr, Eid al-Adha, and Mawlid al-Nabi. The Jewish community reported authorities continued to conduct autopsies in nonsuspicious deaths, against the community’s wishes, and the community continued to face difficulties obtaining government permission to perform animal slaughter for food production according to Jewish law.

The Jewish community continued to report isolated instances of anti-Semitic verbal harassment. The nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) Caritas and Action for Equality, Support, Antiracism (KISA) reported cases in which private employers refused to hire women who wore hijabs. According to Caritas, Muslim students faced less discrimination than in previous years. Some religious minority groups continued to report societal pressure to engage in public Greek Orthodox religious ceremonies. Greek Orthodox Christians reported they sometimes faced ostracism from that community if they converted to another religion. In September a European Commission study found that 48 percent of respondents believed discrimination on the basis of religion or belief was widespread in the country. In January the European Commission (EC) published a Special Eurobarometer survey indicating 73 percent of residents believed anti-Semitism was not a problem. Leaders of the main religious groups continued to meet under the framework of the Religious Track of the Cyprus Peace Process (RTCYPP) – an initiative of the Swedish embassy – and advocate for greater religious freedom for faith communities across the island.

U.S. embassy representatives continued to meet frequently with government officials to discuss issues including access to religious sites on either side of the “green line” dividing the country. The Ambassador met with many religious leaders to discuss religious freedom restrictions, access to religious sites, and interfaith cooperation. On September 3, the Ambassador hosted a reception for Salpy Eskidjian Weiderud, RTCYPP Executive Coordinator, to encourage continued cooperation among the faith communities and with government authorities to expand religious freedom on the island. Embassy staff met with NGOs and religious leaders to discuss topics including access to religious sites island-wide and discrimination against minority religious groups. Embassy officials also visited places of religious significance on both sides of the “green line” and encouraged continued dialogue and cooperation among religious leaders.

Section I. Religious Demography

The U.S. government estimates the total population of the island at 1.3 million (midyear 2019 estimate). According to the 2011 census, the population of the government-controlled area is 840,000. Of that total, 89.1 percent is Orthodox Christian and 1.8 percent is Muslim. Other religious groups include Roman Catholics, known as Latins (2.9 percent), Protestants (2 percent), Buddhists (1 percent), Maronite Catholics (0.5 percent), and Armenian Orthodox (0.3 percent), with small populations of Jews, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and Baha’is. The country’s chief rabbi estimates the number of Jews at 4,500, most of whom are foreign-born residents in the country. A Jehovah’s Witnesses representative estimates the group has 2,600 members. Recent immigrants and migrant workers are predominantly Roman Catholic, Muslim, Hindu, and Buddhist.

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

The constitution prohibits religious discrimination and protects the right of individuals to profess their faith and to worship, teach, and practice or observe their religion, individually or collectively, in private or in public, subject to limitations due to considerations of national security or public health, safety, order, and morals, or the protection of civil liberties. 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 grants the Autocephalous Greek Orthodox Church of Cyprus (Church of Cyprus) the exclusive right to regulate and administer the Church’s internal affairs and property in accordance with its canons and charter. By law, the Church of Cyprus pays taxes only on commercial activities.

The constitution sets guidelines for the Vakf, which is tax exempt and has the exclusive right to regulate and administer its internal affairs and property in accordance with its laws and principles. According to the constitution, no legislative, executive, or other act may contravene or interfere with the Church of Cyprus or the Vakf. The Vakf, which acts as caretaker of religious properties in the Turkish Cypriot community, operates only in the area administered by Turkish Cypriots. The government administers and provides financial support for the physical maintenance of mosques in government-controlled areas.

In addition to the Church of Cyprus and Islam, the constitution recognizes three other religious groups: Maronite Catholics, Armenian Orthodox, and Latins (Roman Catholics). Their institutions are tax exempt and eligible for government subsidies for cultural and educational matters, including to cover costs to operate their own schools, for school fees of group members attending private schools, and for activities to preserve their cultural identity.

Religious groups not recognized in the constitution must register with the government as nonprofit organizations in order to engage in financial transactions and maintain bank accounts. To register, a religious group must submit through an attorney an application to the Registrar of Companies under the Ministry of Energy, Commerce, Industry, and Tourism stating its purpose and providing the names of its directors. Religious groups registered as nonprofit organizations are treated the same as other nonprofit organizations; they are tax exempt, must provide annual reports to the government, and are not eligible for government subsidies.

The government has formal processes by which religious groups may apply to use restored religious heritage sites for religious purposes.

According to a public school regulation, students are not allowed to cover their heads in school; however, the regulation explicitly states that the regulation should be implemented without discriminating against a student’s religion, race, color, gender, or any political or other convictions of the student or the parents.

The law requires animals to be stunned before slaughter.

The government requires Greek Orthodox religious instruction and attendance at religious services before major holidays 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 in primary school may not opt out. The MOE may excuse secondary school students from religious instruction on grounds of religion or conscience and may excuse them 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 ombudsman is an independent state institution responsible for protecting citizens’ rights and human rights in general. The ombudsman may investigate complaints made against any public service or official for actions that violate human rights, including freedom of religion, or contravene the laws or rules of proper administration. The ombudsman makes recommendations to correct wrongdoings but cannot enforce them.

Conscientious objectors on religious grounds are exempt from active military duty and from reservist service in the National Guard but must complete alternative service. The two options available for conscientious objectors are unarmed military service, which is a maximum of four months longer than the normal 14-month service, or social service, which is a maximum of eight months longer than normal service but requires fewer hours of work per day. The penalty for refusing military or alternative service is up to three years’ imprisonment, a fine of up to 6,000 euros ($6,700), or both. Those who refuse both military and alternative service, even if objecting on religious grounds, are considered to have committed an offense involving dishonesty or moral turpitude and are disqualified from holding elected public office and ineligible for permits to provide private security services.

The country is a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.

Government Practices

On September 6, local press reported Apostolos Varnavas Lyceum Headmaster Loizos Sepos instructed a Muslim student wearing a headscarf to leave the school and only return after removing it. The headmaster subsequently told the student’s father that MOE regulations did not allow students to cover their heads, according to press reports. Then minister of education Champiaouris ordered an investigation of the incident, which was concluded by September 18. The MOE did not publicize the results of the investigation and announced on September 18 it would handle the issues arising from the investigation in accordance with the law. The minister met with the student, her father, and the headmaster on September 7. In response to continued criticism from students of the school, the MOE announced on September 8 it would transfer the headmaster to the State Institutes of Further Education.

In August the Department of Antiquities closed the Limassol Great Mosque for restoration without previously informing the Muslim community of the nature of or timeline for the restoration, according to Imam Shakir Alemdar, Representative of the Mufti in Cyprus. The representative sent a letter to the Ministry of Interior (MOI), which had not responded by year’s end.

Muslim community leaders stated the government continued to allow the community access for religious services to only six of 19 mosques located on cultural heritage sites, as well as to two other mosques not located on such sites. Of the eight functioning mosques, seven were available for all five daily prayers, and six had the necessary facilities for ablutions. The government again failed to respond to the Muslim community’s long-standing request for permission to make improvements at the functioning mosques, and there was no change from previous years in either the number of open mosques or the number of ablution and bathroom facilities available at those mosques. Bayraktar and Dhali Mosques had no ablution facilities and no bathrooms. The government installed temporary bathrooms at Bayraktar Mosque and Dhali Mosque during Ramadan. In 2018 the MOI determined ablution and bathroom facilities for Dhali Mosque could not be installed at the local imam’s house across the street from the mosque due to structural issues. During the year, the MOI said installing facilities remained difficult due to limited space near the mosque; however, it said it planned to identify a suitable location and develop new plans.

The Department of Antiquities of the Ministry of Communications and Works provided bathroom facilities approximately 330 feet from Bayraktar Mosque. In October the Department of Antiquities said it was studying the placement of ablution facilities near Bayraktar Mosque. It said any new additions must be carefully placed because the mosque was part of the medieval Venetian wall of the city, an officially recognized ancient monument.

In October the imam of Hala Sultan Tekke Mosque said Department of Antiquities security guards stationed at the complex refused to let some non-Muslim tourists attend Friday prayers, despite the imam having invited them to attend. He also said visiting Department of Antiquities staff refused to wear appropriate clothing when entering the complex and security guards sometimes allowed visitors to enter the mosque wearing shoes. He said he spoke with the Head of the Antiquities Department but did not reach agreement on these issues by year’s end.

According to the RTCYPP, the Muslim community, Republic of Cyprus authorities, local press, and the UNFICYP, the government continued to waive visa requirements for the movement of non-Turkish Cypriot pilgrims south across the “green line” to visit Hala Sultan Tekke Mosque to conduct prayers and services on special occasions. To cross the “green line” without identification checks to visit religious sites, Turkish Cypriots and foreign nationals residing in the area administered by Turkish Cypriots were still required to submit requests to UNFICYP, which then facilitated the approval process with the government.

According to the RTCYPP and local press, on June 6, 600 pilgrims, primarily of Turkish origin, crossed from the area under Turkish Cypriot administration to attend a special service led by Mufti of Cyprus Talip Atalay at Hala Sultan Tekke Mosque for Eid al-Fitr (compared with 884 in 2018). On August 13, police again escorted approximately 305 Turkish Cypriots, Turks, and other foreign nationals to Hala Sultan Tekke for prayers on Eid al-Adha (compared to 300 in 2018). On November 11, 415 pilgrims crossed into the government-controlled area to attend prayers at Hala Sultan Tekke on Mawlid al-Nabi (compared to 655 in 2018). A Muslim community representative said the government did not impose any new restrictions on those who could cross for the pilgrimages.

On January 25, UNFICYP facilitated the visit of 28 Turkish Cypriots to Deneia village inside the buffer zone for the first prayer service at Deneia Mosque since 1963. After the service, Deneia community leader Christakis Panayiotou held a welcome reception for the Turkish Cypriots.

Representatives of the Jewish community again reported authorities continued to perform autopsies on deceased members of the community for deaths that were not suspicious, a practice they said violated Jewish religious beliefs. They stated that, despite continuing to raise the issue with government authorities, it remained unresolved.

Jewish representatives said local Department of Veterinary Services officials continued to deny exemptions from the requirement to stun animals before slaughter, despite granting exemptions in previous years. A Department of Veterinary Services official said the department no longer granted exemptions for religious slaughter. The Jewish community reported they were able to import kosher meat from other European Union (EU) countries at a significantly higher cost than if it were locally available.

Jewish representatives said the government continued not to respond to their long-standing request to grant the Chief Rabbinate of Cyprus the right to officiate (sign as an authorized individual) documents, including marriage, death, and divorce certificates.

A Jehovah’s Witnesses representative said the Jehovah’s Witnesses were not allowed to bury their adherents in some municipal cemeteries, which were often managed by local Greek Orthodox churches. After the community wrote a letter to the Ministry of Interior, Larnaca Municipality responded it had designated a place within the municipal cemetery for non-Greek Orthodox groups to bury their followers.

Representative of the Mufti of Cyprus Imam Alemdar said the Larnaca Turkish cemetery was completely full. He sent a letter to the MOI requesting that a Vakf property near Hala Sultan Tekke Mosque be made available as a cemetery. The MOI had not responded by year’s end.

In June the Cyprus Humanists Association said a school in Famagusta District presented a student with an award donated by a local business that was conditional on the student being an Orthodox Christian. The association said public schools previously presented similar awards conditional on the students being Greek Orthodox. It called on the Ministry of Education, the ombudsman, and Commissioner for the Rights of the Child Leda Koursoumba to prevent discrimination and maintain the secular character of public schools. The commissioner’s office said as of year’s end it had not received any formal complaints.

The military continued to require recruits 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 could refrain from raising their hand during the ceremony. They instead recited a pledge of allegiance at a separate gathering.

Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom

Because religion and ethnicity are often closely linked, it was difficult to categorize many incidents as being solely based on religious identity.

Representatives of the Jewish community continued to report instances of anti-Semitic verbal harassment on the street.

Caritas reported discrimination against Muslim children in schools declined compared with previous years. Caritas reported increased diversity awareness and language training during the year generally improved behavior towards non-native Muslim students.

Caritas and KISA said women wearing hijabs often faced difficulties finding employment. According to Caritas, in August a Somali woman was refused employment in a hotel because she was wearing a hijab. The prospective employer wrote in the applicant’s rejection letter that “the covering of her face with a scarf is a problem.” The woman filed a complaint with the ombudsman that was under review at year’s end.

Members of minority religious groups continued to report societal pressures to participate in public religious ceremonies of majority groups. For example, children of various religious minorities said they faced social pressure to attend Greek Orthodox religious ceremonies at school. An Armenian Orthodox representative said community members who married Greek Orthodox received pressure from family members to have a Greek Orthodox wedding and follow Greek Orthodox rituals. Similarly, Armenian Orthodox army recruits reportedly felt peer pressure to take the oath administered by a Greek Orthodox priest.

Some Greek Orthodox adherents who converted to other faiths reportedly continued to hide their conversion from family and friends due to fear of social ostracism.

In May the EC carried out a study in each EU-member state on perceptions of discrimination and published the results in September. According to the findings, 48 percent of respondents believed discrimination on the basis of religion or belief was widespread in Cyprus, while 48 percent said it was rare; 58 percent would be comfortable with having a person of a different religion than the majority of the population occupy the highest elected political position in the country. In addition, 98 percent said they would be comfortable working closely with a Christian, 81 percent said they would be with an atheist, 84 percent with a Jew, 78 percent with a Muslim, and 81 percent with a Buddhist. Asked how they would feel if their child were in a “love relationship” with an individual belonging to various groups, 98 percent said they would be comfortable if the partner were Christian, 52 percent if atheist, 52 percent if Jewish, 48 percent if Buddhist, and 40 percent if Muslim.

In January the EC published a Special Eurobarometer survey of perceptions of anti-Semitism based on interviews it conducted in December 2018 in each EU member state. According to the survey, 73 percent of residents believed anti-Semitism was not a problem in Cyprus, and 47 percent believed it had stayed the same over the previous five years. The percentage who believed that anti-Semitism was a problem in nine different categories was as follows: Holocaust denial, 26 percent; on the internet, 23 percent; anti-Semitic graffiti or vandalism, 18 percent; expression of hostility or threats against Jews in public places, 19 percent; desecration of Jewish cemeteries, 20 percent; physical attacks against Jews, 18 percent; anti-Semitism in schools and universities, 19 percent; anti-Semitism in political life,18 percent; and anti-Semitism in the media, 21 percent.

On June 22, the Technical Committee on Cultural Heritage (TCCH), one of the Greek Cypriot and Turkish Cypriot technical committees established as part of the UN-facilitated settlement negotiations process, organized an inauguration ceremony to mark the completed restoration of Camii-Kebir Mosque in the city of Paphos. The mosque is classified as an ancient monument, and it did not function as an active mosque after restoration.

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 within the framework of the RTCYPP. On March 19, the leaders of the Greek Orthodox, Muslim, Armenian, Maronite, and Roman Catholic religious groups visited the collapsed Saint James Church in the buffer zone in Nicosia. They called for restoration of Saint James Church without delay, as well as for the restoration of Saint George Church, also located in the buffer zone in Nicosia.

On March 15, the religious leaders of the five groups recognized by the constitution jointly condemned the terrorist attacks at two mosques in New Zealand. On April 21, Mufti of Cyprus Atalay issued a statement condemning the terrorist attacks in Sri Lanka targeting Christians on Easter Sunday.

On June 4, Christian religious leaders under the framework of the RTCYPP issued a joint greeting for the Mufti of Cyprus and all the Muslim faithful wishing them a blessed Eid al-Fitr.

A joint project of religious leaders through the RTCYPP offering Greek and Turkish language classes for members of the Greek Orthodox, Muslim, Armenian Orthodox, Maronite, and Roman Catholic communities continued; participants included priests, imams, nuns, and laypersons who worked for faith-based organizations. On May 9, language class participants attended an iftar at Hala Sultan Tekke Mosque.

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement

Embassy representatives continued to meet frequently with government officials from the Ministries of Interior, Foreign Affairs, and Justice, as well as the Department of Antiquities, to discuss religious freedom issues, including encouraging greater access to religious sites on either side of the “green line” and discrimination against minority religious communities.

The Ambassador discussed restrictions on access to religious sites and interfaith cooperation with many religious leaders, including the Archbishop of the Church of Cyprus, the Archbishop of the Maronite Church of Cyprus, the Archbishop of the Armenian Orthodox Church of Cyprus, and the Apostolic Nuncio. The Ambassador visited Hala Sultan Tekke Mosque and discussed the mosque’s limited hours of operation and the condition of Larnaca Turkish Cemetery with the resident imam. She also visited the Jewish Community Center in Larnaca and discussed religious freedom and religious-based discrimination with the Chief Rabbi of Cyprus. The Ambassador discussed with the Swedish ambassador ways to promote religious freedom on the island and to support the efforts of the RTCYPP to encourage cooperation among religious leaders. On September 3, the Ambassador hosted a reception to honor RTCYPP Executive Coordinator Salpy Eskidjian Weiderud, a recipient of the Secretary of State’s 2019 International Religious Freedom Award, and to encourage continued cooperation among the faith communities and with government authorities to expand religious freedom on the island.

Embassy staff continued to discuss religious freedom issues, including religious-based discrimination, with NGOs Caritas and KISA. They engaged representatives of the Anglican, Armenian Orthodox, Baha’i, Buddhist, Evangelical, Greek Orthodox, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Jewish, Maronite, Muslim, and Roman Catholic communities to hear their concerns about access to and the condition of religious sites and cemeteries, incidents of religious-based harassment and discrimination, societal attitudes toward minority religions, and obstacles to religious freedom. Embassy officials supported religious leaders’ continuing dialogue within the RTCYPP and encouraged continuing reciprocal visits of religious leaders to places of worship on both sides of the “green line.”

Read a Section

The Area Administered by Turkish Cypriots 

Greece

Executive Summary

The constitution states freedom of religious conscience is inviolable and provides for freedom of worship, with some restrictions. It recognizes Greek Orthodoxy as the “prevailing religion.” On June 11, the parliament passed legislation amending the penal code to remove laws criminalizing malicious blasphemy and religious insult. The penal code passed in June requires court witnesses to take a secular oath, thereby removing the option to choose a religious oath. In April the parliament approved eight million euros ($8.99 million) for the construction of the Holocaust Museum of Greece. In September the country’s highest administrative court, the Council of State (CoS), ruled the curricula for religious education in elementary and secondary schools violated the constitution and the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) and should be restructured to further differentiate Orthodox Christianity from other religions and to better develop an Orthodox Christian conscience, as mandated by the constitution. The CoS also ruled the inclusion of religious identity on student transcripts at the secondary level was unconstitutional. In June a presidential decree specified how official muftis in Thrace would administer decisions made under Islamic law, following a 2018 legislative amendment requiring notarized consent from all parties if they wished to adjudicate family matters using sharia instead of the civil courts. The same decree included organizational requirements for muftiates providing public sector services. A criminal trial continued for 69 members and supporters of the Golden Dawn (GD) political party accused of a series of violent attacks and arson, including targeting Muslim migrants. In July the Ministry of Education and Religious Affairs granted a house of prayer permit to a religious community that worshipped ancient Greek gods. The government issued an additional 12 new house of prayer permits, including to Jehovah’s Witnesses, Muslim groups, and Pentecostals, but revoked five others on the grounds the houses of worship had ceased operation or did not comply with construction or security regulations. The Greek Orthodox Church, the Muslim minority of Thrace, Jewish communities, and the Roman Catholic Church continued to receive some government benefits not available to other religious communities. Some members of Thrace’s Muslim minority continued to oppose the government’s appointment of muftis, stating the community should elect them. The government continued to fund Holocaust education programs. In February the government adopted the working definition of anti-Semitism in accordance with the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA), and in November, Greece became the first country to adopt the alliance’s working definition of Holocaust denial and distortion.

Vandalism of religious properties, including Holocaust memorials, a Muslim cemetery in Alexandroupolis, and Greek Orthodox churches, continued. On January 24, a previously unknown organization, the Iconoclastic Sect, claimed responsibility for a December 2018 explosion outside a Greek Orthodox church. Unknown vandals desecrated a monument marking the site of a former Jewish cemetery on the campus of Aristotle University in Thessaloniki. Archbishop Ieronymos of the Greek Orthodox Church and government officials, including the then mayor of Thessaloniki, Yannis Boutaris, denounced the attack. On April 10, individuals vandalized two metal memorial plaques at the Thessaloniki port dedicated to persons who perished during the Holocaust. In September the country’s first crematorium began operations, implementing a 2006 law permitting the cremation of remains.

The U.S. Ambassador, visiting U.S. government officials, and other embassy and consulate representatives met with officials of the Ministry of Education and Religious Affairs, including the minister and the secretary general for religious affairs, and officials of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and governors. They discussed the ability of minority religious communities to establish houses of worship and government initiatives affecting both the Muslim minority in Thrace and Muslim immigrants. In meetings with government officials and religious leaders, including the head of the Greek Orthodox Church, U.S. government officials expressed concern about anti-Semitic and anti-Muslim acts and rhetoric and attacks on Orthodox churches. On May 7- 8, the Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom visited Mount Athos and met with the governor of the peninsula, representatives of the governing Holy Community, an abbot, and monks from three monasteries, emphasizing U.S. support for religious freedom. He and his advisors also held meetings with the Archbishop of Athens and All Greece, the secretary general for religious affairs, the three official muftis in Thrace, advocates of the religious rights of ethnic Turks, representatives of Pomaks and of Alevites, the Jewish community in Thessaloniki, and members of the Evangelical Church.

Section I. Religious Demography

The U.S. government estimates the total population at 10.8 million (midyear 2019 estimate), with 81 to 90 percent identifying as Greek Orthodox, 4 to 15 percent atheist, and 2 percent Muslim.

In Thrace, there are approximately 140,000 Muslims, according to government sources using 2011 data; they are largely descendants of the Muslim minority officially recognized in the 1923 Treaty of Lausanne. According to a Pew Research Center study released in November 2017, an additional 520,000 Muslims – mostly immigrants and asylum seekers from Southeastern Europe, South Asia, Southeast Asia, the Middle East, and North Africa – reside throughout the country, clustered in communities by their countries of origin or in reception facilities. Government sources estimate half reside in Athens.

According to data provided by other religious communities, their members combined constitute 3 to 5 percent of the population. These include Old Calendarist Orthodox, Catholics, Protestants, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Jews, members of polytheistic Hellenic religions, Scientologists, Baha’is, members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Sikhs, Seventh-day Adventists, Buddhists, and members of the International Society of Krishna Consciousness (ISKCON). . Independent and media sources estimate Ethiopian Orthodox number 2500, and Assyrians less than 1,000. The Armenian Orthodox Archbishop, interviewed in 2018, estimated there are 100,000Armenian Orthodox

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

The constitution recognizes Greek Orthodoxy as the “prevailing religion.” It states freedom of religious conscience is inviolable and provides for freedom of worship under the protection of the law, with some restrictions. The constitution prohibits “proselytizing,” defined by law as “any direct or indirect attempt to intrude on the religious beliefs of a person of a different religious persuasion with the aim of undermining those beliefs through inducement, fraudulent means, or taking advantage of the other person’s inexperience, trust, need, low intellect, or naivete.” The constitution prohibits worship that “disturbs public order or offends moral principles.” It allows prosecutors to seize publications that “offend Christianity” or other “known religions.” The law provides penalties of up to two years in prison for individuals who maliciously attempt to prevent or who intentionally disrupt a religious gathering for worship or a religious service, and for individuals engaging in “insulting action” inside a church or place of worship. On June 11, the parliament passed legislation that amended the penal code by abolishing articles criminalizing malicious blasphemy and religious insult. The constitution enumerates the goals of public education, including “the development of religious conscience among citizens.” Greek Orthodox priests and government-appointed muftis and imams in Thrace receive their salaries from the government.

The constitution states ministers of all known religions are subject to the same state supervision and obligations to the state as clergy of the Greek Orthodox Church. It states individuals are not exempt from their obligations to the state or from compliance with the law because of their religious convictions.

The Greek Orthodox Church, Jewish community, and Muslim minority of Thrace have long-held status as official religious public law legal entities. The Catholic Church, Anglican Church, two evangelical Christian groups, and the Ethiopian, Coptic, Armenian Apostolic, and Assyrian Orthodox Churches automatically acquired the status of religious legal entities under a 2014 law. The same law also allows groups seeking recognition to become “religious legal entities” under civil law.

The recognition process requires filing a request with the civil courts, providing documents proving the group has “open rituals and no secret doctrines,” supplying a list of 300 signatory members who do not adhere to other religious groups, demonstrating there is a leader who is legally in the country and is otherwise qualified, and showing their practices do not pose a threat to public order. Once a civil court recognizes a group, it sends a notification to the Secretariat General for Religions. Under the law, all religious officials of known religions and official religious legal entities, including the Greek Orthodox Church, the muftiates of Thrace, and the Jewish communities, must register in the electronic database maintained by the Ministry of Education and Religious Affairs.

The law also provides a second method for groups to obtain government recognition: any religious group that has obtained at least one valid permit to operate a place of prayer is considered a “known religion” and thereby acquires legal protection, including a tax exemption for property used for religious purposes. Membership requirements for house of prayer permits differ from the requirements for religious legal entities. Local urban planning departments in charge of monitoring and enforcing public health and safety regulations certify that facilities designated to operate as places of worship fulfill the necessary standards. Once a house of worship receives planning approvals, a religious group must submit a description of its basic principles and rituals and a biography of the religious minister or leader to the Ministry of Education and Religious Affairs for final approval. The application for a house of prayer permit requires at least five signatory members of the group. The leaders of a religious group applying for a house of prayer permit must be Greek citizens, European Union nationals, or legal residents of the country, and must possess other professional qualifications, including relevant education and experience. A separate permit is required for each physical place of worship.

A religious group possessing status as a religious legal entity may transfer property and administer houses of prayer and worship, private schools, charitable institutions, and other nonprofit entities. Some religious groups have opted to retain their status as civil society nonprofit associations acquired through court recognition prior to the 2014 law. Under this status, religious groups may operate houses of prayer and benefit from real estate property tax exemptions, but they may face administrative and fiscal difficulties in transferring property and in operating private schools, charitable institutions, and other nonprofit entities.

All recognized religious groups are subject to taxation on property used for nonreligious purposes. Property used solely for religious purposes remains exempt from taxation, as well as from municipal fees, for groups classified as religious legal entities or “known religions.”

The law allows religious communities without status as legal entities to appear before administrative and civil courts as plaintiffs or defendants.

The 1923 Treaty of Lausanne accords the recognized Muslim minority of Thrace the right to maintain mosques and social and charitable organizations (awqaaf). A 1991 law authorizes the government, in consultation with a committee of Muslim leaders, to appoint three muftis in Thrace to 10-year terms of office which may be extended. The law also allows a regional official to appoint temporary acting muftis until this committee convenes. The law mandates official muftis in Thrace must request notarized consent from all parties wishing to adjudicate a family matter based on sharia. Absent notarized consent from all parties, family matters fall under the jurisdiction of civil courts. The law also provides for the Ministry of Education and Religious Affairs to assume all operating expenses for the muftiates in Thrace, under the supervision of the Ministry of Finance Directorate General for Fiscal Monitoring.

The law establishes an individual’s right to choose his or her burial or cremation location and mandates that death certificates detail this information. In the presence of a notary, individuals may designate the location and method of funeral service under conditions that adhere to public order, hygiene, or moral ethics, as well as to designate a person responsible for carrying out funeral preferences.

The law allows halal and kosher slaughtering of animals in slaughterhouses but not in private residences or public areas.

Home schooling of children is not permitted. The law requires all children to attend 11 years of compulsory education in state or private schools, including two years of preschool education, in accordance with the official school curriculum. Religious instruction in primary and secondary schools is included in the curriculum. School textbooks focus mainly on Greek Orthodox teachings; however, they also include basic information on some other “known religions.” Students may be exempted from religious instruction upon request if their parents state in writing that the students are not Greek Orthodox believers. Exempted students have a free hour, but no alternative class is offered.

The law provides for optional Islamic religious instruction in public schools in Thrace for the recognized Muslim minority and optional Catholic religious instruction in public schools on the islands of Tinos and Syros. The law also includes provisions to make it easier for schools to hire and retain religious instructors for those optional courses. On January 29, the parliament amended legislation regarding Catholic teachers who serve in public schools and become bishops in the Catholic Church. Upon teachers’ requests, the law grants them exemption from teaching and administrative duties to undertake responsibilities related to Catholic teaching and the lifelong training of Catholic teachers, which allows them to keep a salary, which bishops do not receive.

The law allows Muslim students in primary and secondary schools throughout the country to be absent for two days each for Eid al-Fitr and Eid al-Adha.

According to the law, parents may send their children to private religious schools. Private Orthodox, Catholic, and Jewish schools operate in the country. As per the Lausanne Treaty, the government operates bilingual secular schools in Thrace, which totaled 128 in 2018-2019. Bilingual schools operate in Greek and Turkish, and their number may vary according to the number of registered students, with a minimum of five students per school. There are two Islamic religious schools in Thrace. Muslim students in Thrace wishing to study the Quran may attend after-hours religious classes in mosques.

The law establishes an annual 0.5 percent quota for admission of students from the recognized Muslim minority in Thrace to universities, technical institutes, and civil service positions. Similarly, 2 percent of students entering the national fire brigade school and academy are required to be from the Muslim minority in Thrace.

The law provides for alternative forms of mandatory service for religious conscientious objectors in lieu of the nine-month mandatory minimum military service for men. Conscientious objectors must serve 15 months of alternative service in state hospitals or municipal and public services. On May 3, parliament amended legislation regarding conscientious objectors.

Individuals or legal entities convicted of incitement to violence, discrimination, or hatred based on religion, among other factors, may be sentenced to prison terms of between three months and three years and fined 5,000 to 20,000 euros ($5,600-$22,500). Violators convicted of other crimes motivated by religion may be sentenced to an additional six months to three years, with fines doubled. The law criminalizes approval, trivialization, or malicious denial of the Holocaust and “crimes of Nazism” if that behavior leads to incitement of violence or hatred or has a threatening or abusive nature towards groups of individuals.

The law requires all civil servants, including cabinet and parliament members, to take an oath before entering office; individuals are free to take a religious or secular oath in accordance with their beliefs. Witnesses in trials must also take oaths before testifying in court. The new penal code that took effect July 1 requires witnesses in courts to take only a secular oath. Previously, witnesses could choose a religious or secular oath.

The country is a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.

Government Practices

On May 7, the parliament passed legislation defining as “religious community archives” all the archival material filed or processed at the muftiates of Thrace; the Central Board of the Jewish Communities in Greece; the organizations for the management of awqaaf land property on the islands of Rhodes and in Kos; the private awqaaf of Rhodes; religious and ecclesiastical legal entities; and known religions and licensed houses of worship. The law also provides that archives be preserved in good condition, be accessible to the public, and be catalogued under the national directory for archives of the state archives authority. The law includes similar provisions for the archives of the Church of Greece, the Church of Crete, the dioceses of the Dodecanese Islands, the Patriarchal Exarchate of Patmos, Mount Athos, monasteries, parish churches, and Orthodox Church foundations.

The criminal trial of 69 GD party members and supporters, including 18 of its former members of parliament, continued through the end of the year. The charges related to a string of attacks, including on Muslim migrants and Greeks, and included murder, conspiracy, weapons possession, and membership in a criminal organization.

On September 17, the Ministry of Education and Religious Affairs announced it would comply with a recommendation by the Data Protection Authority and stop indicating religion and nationality in school records. Following an appeal by the Hellenic League for Human Rights and the Atheist Union, the authority ruled that references to religion and nationality in school records were unconstitutional, unlawful, and contrary to the provisions of the European Convention of Human Rights. The authority also ruled that requiring written declarations that students who were not Christian Orthodox be exempted from attending religious class was unlawful. According to the authority, a written declaration by students (or their parents, in the case of minors) requesting exemption on the grounds of religious conscience was sufficient. On October 31, the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) ruled in favor of five Greek plaintiffs who had appealed ministerial decisions requiring written declarations that they were not Christian Orthodox. According to the ECHR, such requirements placed an undue burden on parents to disclose information that implied that they and their children held, or did not hold, a specific religious belief. The court ruled the requirement for such declarations could discourage exemption requests, especially from families residing on small islands where the risk of stigmatization was higher. The judgment found the requirement to be a violation of the right to education, and cited freedom of thought, conscience, and religion. On September 25, the CoS ruled the inscription of religion on school transcripts at the secondary level of education was unconstitutional. According to the CoS, “Freedom of religious conscience entails, inter alia, the right of persons not to disclose, whether directly or indirectly, their religion or religious beliefs. No state authority or body is allowed to seek a person’s religious belief and, even more, enforce its disclosure.”

On September 20, the plenary session of the CoS ruled the curricula for religious education in primary and secondary schools must be restructured because they were unconstitutional and violated the European Convention on Human Rights. The constitution requires the state to develop a religious conscience in students, and it was not doing so, the CoS ruled. Because non-Orthodox Christian students may request and be granted an exemption from religious classes, the CoS ruled that the teaching of religion, as currently implemented, must focus on the Orthodox Christian students who take the classes. The current curricula did not provide a holistic approach to the tradition and ethics of Orthodox Christianity and clearly differentiate it from other religions, and ultimately did not serve the needs of Orthodox Christian students, the CoS ruled. The ruling also reiterated that if a “sufficient” number of students were excused from the religious classes, the state would be obliged to hold a different class for them during that time slot.

The Eritrean Orthodox Tewahedo Church in Athens and an Old Calendarist group applied to the courts seeking recognition as religious legal entities. Their applications were pending at year’s end.

On July 31, the Ministry of Education and Religious Affairs announced it would close five primary minority schools, citing low student attendance. From 2011-2019, 50 minority schools in Thrace closed according to government data.

Religious groups lacking religious-entity status and no house of prayer permits, including Scientologists and ISKCON, continued to function as registered, nonprofit civil law organizations. The government did not legally recognize weddings conducted by members of those religious groups, whose only option was a civil marriage.

On July 3, the Ministry of Education and Religious Affairs granted for the first time a house of prayer permit, in Athens, to a religious community that worships ancient Greek gods. The government also approved an additional 12 permits for houses of prayer, including nine for Jehovah’s Witnesses (in Attica Region and in the cities of Serres, Trikala, Aegio, and on Paros Island), one for Pentecostals, and two for Sunni Muslim groups in the municipality of Aspropyrgos and in the district of Metaxourgio, in greater Athens. The government revoked permits of the Armenian Evangelical Church in Athens and in Thessaloniki because the churches ceased operations. The government also revoked the permit of a Jehovah’s Witness house of prayer in Thessaloniki on the grounds the facility did not meet fire protection requirements. It also revoked a permit of an Old Calendarist group on the grounds its facility did not conform with construction regulations, as well as one permit of an evangelical Christian group on the island of Zakynthos because the group had changed its official name. There were no pending applications at year’s end. The government approved the construction of three Jehovah’s Witnesses Kingdom Halls and one structure for the Egyptian Coptic Orthodox Church. On December 10, the Ministry of Education and Religious Affairs licensed three mosques on the islands of Kos and Rhodes that had been operating as places of worship prior to 1955 but lacked construction permit documents, according to media reports. The lack of permits had resulted in several bureaucratic issues regarding licensing, operation, and restoration requirements.

Jehovah’s Witnesses continued to report some doctors in public hospitals did not understand or respect their refusal to receive blood transfusions.

The government continued to provide direct support to the Greek Orthodox Church, including funding for religious leaders’ salaries, estimated at 200 million euros ($224.7 million) annually; the religious and vocational training of clergy; and religious instruction in schools. Greek Orthodox officials stated the government provided this direct support in accordance with a series of legal agreements with past governments and as compensation for religious property previously expropriated by the state, a statement that government officials acknowledged. The government also provided direct support to the muftiates in Thrace, including salaries for the three official muftis and for teachers contracted to teach the optional class of Islamic religion in local public schools.

Some members of the Muslim minority in Thrace continued to object to the government’s practice of appointing muftis, pressing instead for direct election of muftis by the Muslim minority. The government continued to state that government appointment was appropriate because the muftis retained judicial powers and because the constitution does not permit the election of judges. On June 11, a presidential decree determined how official muftis in Thrace would administer decisions made under Islamic law in the wake of a 2018 legislative amendment requiring notarized consent of all parties if they wished to adjudicate family matters using sharia instead of the civil courts. The same decree also included provisions on how the muftiates would operate in terms of internal organization, staffing, and transparency. During the year, all three muftiates in Thrace continued to be led by temporary, acting muftis appointed under the latter procedure.

Some members of the Muslim minority in Thrace continued to object to the government appointment of members entrusted to oversee endowments, real estate, and charitable funds of the awqaaf, stating the Muslim minority in Thrace should elect these members. Muslim leaders continued to criticize the lack of Islamic cemeteries outside Thrace, stating this obliged Muslims to transport their dead to Thrace for Islamic burials. They also continued to state that municipal cemetery regulations requiring exhumation of bodies after three years because of a shortage of space contravened Islamic religious law. At least three sites, on Lesvos Island, in Schisto, and near the land border with Turkey in Evros, continued to be used unofficially for the burial of Muslim migrants and asylum seekers.

The government completed the construction and landscaping of a government-funded mosque in Athens in June. According to government sources, however, time-consuming requirements for hiring new personnel prevented the mosque from opening by year’s end. On May 20, a presidential decree determined the bylaws of the managing committee of the mosque made it a public organization under private law. The bylaws addressed internal administration, personnel, budget, procurement, and contracts. On April 2, the mosque’s managing committee unanimously recommended the appointment of Moroccan-born, naturalized Greek citizen Zaki Mohammed as its imam.

In the absence of an official mosque in Athens, central and local government authorities continued to provide space free of charge to groups whose members requested places of worship during Ramadan and for other religious occasions.

On March 13, media reported that the Ministry of Environment issued a decree determining the location and use of space for the establishment of a municipally managed crematorium in Eleonas, Athens.

The government continued to fund Catholic religious training and teachers’ salaries in state schools on the islands of Syros and Tinos, trips for non-Jewish students to Holocaust remembrance events and Auschwitz, and Holocaust education training for teachers. Throughout the 2018-2019 school year, 120 students participated in a government-funded educational trip to the Auschwitz concentration camp. The government also supported and organized initiatives promoting religious tolerance. In a February 12 statement, the Central Board of Jewish Communities in Greece (KIS) hailed the adoption on February 11 by the General Secretariat for Religious Affairs of the Ministry of Education of a working definition of anti-Semitism, in accordance with the IHRA. On November 8, Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis affirmed this position. During the same period, the country became the first to adopt the IHRA’s working definition of Holocaust denial and distortion.

On October 10, KIS issued a statement denouncing an anti-Semitic attack in Germany and welcomed the timely response by the Ministry for Citizen Protection that provided protection for the headquarters of Jewish foundations in Greece. It hailed the statement by Minister of Education and Religious Affairs Niki Kerameus condemning the incident. On April 23, the Ministry of Education and Religious Affairs for the first time hosted a Passover seder, organized by the Jewish community of Athens. In addition to 350 Jewish participants and the ministry’s leadership, Archimandrite Dionysios represented the Archbishop of Athens and All Greece at the event. On February 28 and March 1, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs organized an international conference on religious and ecclesiastical diplomacy in the 21st century that brought together religious leaders of various faiths, as well as academics and government officials. Participants from Orthodox churches, Catholics, Jews, Muslims, Armenians, Coptic Christians, Assyrians, and Syrian Orthodox Christians all discussed ways they could cooperate.

On May 3, a large delegation including then parliament speaker Nikos Voutsis, President of Jewish Communities of Greece David Saltiel, and other members of parliament participated in the 31st annual “March of the Living” at the site of Auschwitz concentration camp in Poland. The march highlighted the history of Greek Jews in the Holocaust; Voutsis marked the occasion by presenting artifacts from the new permanent Greek exhibit in the Auschwitz museum. The exhibit, entitled “Remember Me, as I Remember You,” was funded by parliament and organized through cooperation with the Jewish Museum of Greece.

On February 27, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs organized a conference in conjunction with the country’s leadership of the International Tracing Service that focused on the work of the International Documentation Center on Nazi Persecution. The ministry also hosted an exhibition, “Stolen Memory,” which featured the efforts of victims of Nazi atrocities to trace their relatives and recover personal items stored at the Arolsen Archives.

On February 28, then deputy foreign minister Markos Bolaris addressed the fifth National Peace Symposium, organized in Athens by the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community of Greece. Bolaris highlighted the importance of cross-cultural efforts to promote peace.

Some religious groups and human rights organizations continued to label as discriminatory the discrepancy between the length of mandatory alternative service for conscientious objectors (15 months) and the length of mandatory minimum military service (nine months).

On several occasions, government officials publicly denounced the vandalism of several Holocaust memorials and Jewish sites around the country.

On July 13, the Minister for Agricultural Development and Food, Makis Voridis, defended himself against accusations he had expressed anti-Semitic views in the past. Voridis said he “denounced any action, omission, or tolerance of any action by a third party that could be interpreted as anti-Semitic or neo-Nazi.” On July 16, KIS issued a statement that it “takes into consideration and values the explanations” provided by the minister and that it hoped to see him undertake concrete initiatives to demonstrate his sincerity and to combat intolerance and anti-Semitism. On July 22, Voridis visited the Jewish Museum of Greece to signal the government’s support in highlighting the history and longstanding presence of Jews in the country.

On April 24, the parliament passed legislation to grant eight million euros ($8.99 million) for the construction of the Holocaust Museum of Greece.

Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom

Statistics by the Racist Violence Recording Network (RVRN) for 2018, the most recent year available, showed 74 cases in which immigrants or refugees were targeted for their religion, among other grounds, compared with 34 cases in 2017, a development it attributed to global political polarization, among other factors. Because religion and ethnicity are often closely linked, it was difficult to categorize many incidents as solely or primarily based on religious identity. The RVRN recorded nine incidents in which the targets were sacred or symbolic for the Jewish community: six incidents of desecration of Holocaust memorials in Athens and Thessaloniki, two involving the desecration of the Jewish cemeteries in Nikaia and Trikala, and one incident of vandalism of the synagogue in Volos.

In its 2018 report, the RVRN included information communicated to the network by police regarding incidents reported to law enforcement authorities that potentially involved racist motives. Based on this information, police received 28 reports of racist violence based on religion – as many as in the previous year. Police reported, without providing details on specific cases, that approximately 40 percent were hate-speech related cases, without any physical violence. Hate-crime-related data provided to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe by police in 2018 showed eight cases of anti-Semitism, six cases of bias against Muslims, six against Christians, and three against other religious groups.

On January 25, media reported that a court held a trial in absentia for an Old Calendarist, excommunicated monk (“Father Kleomenis”), who had attacked and vandalized the Holocaust Monument in Larissa in July 2017. The court sentenced him to an 18-month suspended prison sentence and a 7,500 euro fine ($8,400). Police spotted and arrested him on November 17.

On April 18, a misdemeanor appeals court in Thessaloniki sentenced a medical doctor to a suspended 14-month jail term for displaying an anti-Semitic sign in 2014 at his municipal practice that read, “Jews Are Not Welcome Here” in German.

On January 19, a previously unknown group called the Iconoclastic Sect claimed responsibility in a post on a Spanish website for a December 2018 explosion outside the Greek Orthodox Church of Agios Dionysios, in central Athens. The group stated on the website that its objective was to cause the “greatest possible damage to a priest and/or to the herd of the faithful.”

Vandalism of Holocaust monuments and memorials continued in the city of Thessaloniki. On January 25, unknown individuals damaged a monument on the campus of Aristotle University in Thessaloniki marking the site of the former Jewish cemetery. On January 28, Archbishop Ieronymos of the Greek Orthodox Church denounced the attack, identifying “the desecration and vandalism of synagogues, Jewish cemeteries, and Holocaust memorials” as “hideous acts that brutally offend our history, culture, nation, and faith.” Government officials, including then mayor of Thessaloniki Yannis Boutaris, denounced the incident and held a silent protest at the site.

Incidents targeting places of religious importance by such means as vandalism, burglaries, and the placement of explosive devices increased by 6 percent in 2018 from the previous year, according to the annual report released on December 19 by the Ministry of Education’s Department of Religious Freedom and Interfaith Relations, Secretariat General for Religions. In total, 591 incidents were recorded, 569 of which targeted Christian sites, 20 Jewish sites (an increase of 81 percent, compared with 2017), three Jehovah’s Witnesses sites, and two Islamic sites. On April 10, perpetrators vandalized two memorial plaques at the port of Thessaloniki dedicated to victims of the Holocaust. Throughout the year, media and police recorded numerous incidents of vandalism targeting Greek Orthodox premises and chapels. For example, on March 3 media reported that unknown individuals vandalized a church on the island of Chios, also removing ecclesiastical objects. On August 26, the anarchist group Nucleus of Anarchist Witches vandalized a chapel in the district of Sepolia, western Athens, using graffiti to desecrate five religious icons displayed in the shrine. On May 28, unknown perpetrators desecrated the Muslim cemetery in Alexandroupolis in the Thrace region, spray-painting graffiti, nationalist slogans, and the GD emblem, and scattering flyers that proclaimed, “Greece belongs to the Greeks.” On May 29, GD leader Nikos Michaloliakos denounced these acts and denied his party’s involvement. On May 30, the then secretary general for transparency and human rights referred the case to the public prosecutor. No arrests were reported for any of these 2019 incidents.

In May the European Commission carried out a study in each EU-member state on perceptions of discrimination and published the results in September. According to the findings, 50 percent of respondents believed discrimination on the basis of religion or belief was widespread in Greece, while 49 percent said it was rare; 66 percent would be comfortable with having a person of different religion than the majority of the population occupy the highest elected political position in the country. In addition, 99 percent said they would be comfortable working closely with a Christian, and 82 percent said they would be with an atheist, 82 percent with a Jew, 78 percent with a Buddhist, and 73 percent with a Muslim. Asked how they would feel if their child were in a “love relationship” with an individual belonging to various groups, 99 percent said they would be comfortable if the partner were Christian, 67 percent if atheist, 63 percent if Jewish, 56 percent if Buddhist, and 48 percent if Muslim.

The direct and indirect linking of Jews to conspiracy theories with regard to the country’s sovereignty continued; individuals mostly expressed these views on social media. On September 7, several local media reported that Jews do not suffer from cancer because they control chemotherapy medication bound for non-Jewish persons around the world and use for themselves “biological methods” to address cancer, such as body, mind, and soul detoxification, and healthy nutrition.

In January the European Commission published a Special Eurobarometer survey of perceptions of anti-Semitism based on interviews it conducted in December 2018 in each EU-member state. According to the survey, 68 percent of residents believed anti-Semitism was not a problem in Greece, and 52 percent believed it has stayed the same over the previous five years. The percentage who believed that anti-Semitism was a problem in nine different categories was as follows: Holocaust denial, 36 percent; on the internet, 32 percent; anti-Semitic graffiti or vandalism, 31 percent; expression of hostility or threats targeting Jews in public places, 30 percent; desecration of Jewish cemeteries, 33 percent; physical attacks on Jews, 31 percent; anti-Semitism in schools and universities, 29 percent; anti-Semitism in political life, 30 percent; and anti-Semitism in media, 28 percent.

According to the Pew Research Global Attitudes Survey released in October, 57 percent of respondents in the country expressed unfavorable opinions of Muslims, while 38 percent expressed unfavorable opinions of Jews.

On May 13, KIS expressed concern about political cartoons and images in media that exploited political controversies by using Jewish symbols and comparisons to the Holocaust, or by equating Jews with Nazis. KIS issued a statement criticizing journalist Kostas Vaxevanis for using in a political commentary a cartoon that displayed the “Arbeit macht Frei” (“Work sets you free”) sign at the entrance to the Auschwitz concentration camp. Vaxevanis said he was arguing against statements by then-opposition leader Mitsotakis supporting a seven-day work week, paraphrasing the entrance sign as “12 hours of labor set you free.”

On March 26, media reported a private citizen in Chania, Crete, filed a complaint with the Supreme Court prosecutor accusing the author of the book Redemption, Dimitris Alikakos, of religious insult and spreading inaccuracies. In his book, Alikakos said the Holy Fire, which is lit every year at the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem on Holy Saturday before Easter, was not the result of a miracle, as per Orthodox Christian tradition. There were no reports of action taken by the Supreme Court prosecutor.

On September 30, the country’s first crematorium, located in Ritsona and privately owned, began operations. Prior to the facility’s establishment, cremation was not an option for residents, many of whom had to travel to neighboring countries for the procedure. Efforts by some local governments to establish municipally owned crematories continued throughout the year.

There was no public decision on the 2018 judicial complaint filed by the NGO Greece Helsinki Monitor against local governments, Orthodox priests, and some media for propagating the custom of the “burning of Judas” during Orthodox Easter celebrations.

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement

The Ambassador, visiting officials, and embassy and consulate representatives discussed religious freedom with officials and representatives of the Ministry of Education and Religious Affairs, including the minister and the secretary general for religious affairs, and officials of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, such as Deputy Minister Markos Bolaris, Special Secretary for Religious and Cultural Diplomacy Eftsathios Lianos Liantis, and Civil Governors for Mount Athos Kostis Dimtsas and Athanasios Martinos. They discussed the ability of minority religious communities to exercise their rights to religious freedom, government initiatives affecting both the Muslim minority in Thrace and Muslim immigrants, progress regarding the opening of the first public mosque in Athens, the enforcement of counter-proselytism legislation by law enforcement, keeping the independence of churches and religions from foreign malign influence, and government initiatives promoting interreligious dialogue. U.S. officials expressed concerns about anti-Semitic and anti-Muslim acts and rhetoric throughout the year and denounced vandalism of religious sites, including the desecration of the Islamic cemetery in Alexandroupolis. The Ambassador worked with the minister of defense to facilitate Ministry of Defense contributions to the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum archives.

On May 7-8, the Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom visited Mount Athos and met with the governor, representatives of the governing Holy Community, an abbot, and monks from three of the monasteries. The Ambassador and his advisors met with Archbishop Ieronymos, Secretary General for Religious Affairs Kalantzis, the three official muftis in Thrace, advocates of the religious rights of ethnic Turks, representatives of Pomaks and of Alevites, the Jewish community in Thessaloniki, and members of the Evangelical Church.

Embassy officials, including the Ambassador and the Consul General, met with religious leaders, including the archbishop and other representatives of the Greek Orthodox Church, as well as members of the Catholic, Muslim, Jewish, Baha’i, and Jehovah’s Witnesses communities, to promote interfaith dialogue, religious tolerance, and diversity. Through these meetings, the embassy monitored the ability of minority religious groups to practice freely their religion and the extent of societal discrimination against both indigenous religious minorities and newly arrived minority religious group migrants.

The Ambassador met with representatives of the Eastern Orthodox Church, including Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew, Archbishop Ieronymos, Metropolitan Emmanuel of France, Archbishop of America Elpidophoros, and the Metropolitan of Karpenisi. The Ambassador discussed with Greek Orthodox leaders the importance of religious tolerance and dialogue. The Ambassador also met with representatives from the Athens and Thessaloniki Jewish communities.

On October 17-18, the Consul General in Thessaloniki visited the monastic peninsula of Mount Athos and met with the governing Holy Community, abbots, and monks from two monasteries. The Consul General also met with the Metropolitans of Thessaloniki, Langadas, Xanthi, Komotini, and Alexandroupoli, with David Saltiel, president of the Greek Jewish community, with the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community of Greece, as well as with academics and theologians, to discuss the status of religious freedom in the northern part of the country and concerns of religious communities. The Consul General attended events organized by the Thessaloniki Jewish Community to honor the memory of Holocaust victims and promote tolerance, including a January 28 silent protest denouncing vandalism of Jewish sites at the former Jewish cemetery on the Aristotle University campus. He met with government officials, including then mayor of Thessaloniki Yannis Boutaris, in February.

Turkey

Executive Summary

The constitution defines the country as a secular state. It provides for freedom of conscience, religious belief, conviction, expression, and worship and prohibits discrimination based on religious grounds. The Presidency of Religious Affairs (Diyanet), a state institution, governs and coordinates religious matters related to Islam; its mandate is to promote and enable the practice of Islam. The government continued to limit the rights of non-Muslim religious minorities, especially those not recognized under the government’s interpretation of the 1923 Lausanne Treaty, which includes only Armenian Apostolic Orthodox Christians, Jews, and Greek Orthodox Christians. Media outlets and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) reported an accelerated pace of entry bans and deportations of non-Turkish citizen leaders of Protestant congregations. The government did not recognize the right to conscientious objection to military service. In January the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) ruled the government violated the European Convention on Human Rights because it refused to allow Seventh-day Adventists to establish a foundation. In October a court ruled the Ministry of Interior and the eastern city of Malatya, Malatya Governorate, were not liable in a 2007 case involving the killings of three persons in an attack on a Christian publishing house. The Armenian Apostolic Orthodox community elected a new patriarch in December; members of the community and rights organizations criticized government interference in the election process. Minority communities continued to object to the prevention of governing board elections for religious foundations. The government continued to restrict efforts of minority religious groups to train their clergy, and the Greek Orthodox Halki Seminary remained closed. Religious minorities again reported difficulties opening or operating houses of worship; resolving land and property disputes and legal challenges of churches whose lands the government previously expropriated; operating or opening houses of worship; and obtaining exemptions from mandatory religion classes in schools. The government did not return any church properties seized in previous decades. Religious minorities, particularly members of the Alevi community, raised challenges to religious content and practices in the public education system. In March President Recep Tayyip Erdogan publicly raised the possibility the status of the Hagia Sophia in Istanbul could be changed from a museum to a mosque. With President Erdogan in attendance, the Syriac Orthodox community broke ground in August on a new church in Istanbul, the first newly constructed church since the country became a republic in 1923. In May President Erdogan inaugurated the country’s largest mosque, which may accommodate up to 63,000. The government continued to provide security support for religious minority communities and paid for the renovation and restoration of some registered religious properties.

In May a Muslim televangelist associated with a private television station converted a 13-year-old Armenian boy living in Turkey to Islam during a live broadcast without his parents’ permission. Members of the Armenian community and members of parliament (MPs) denounced the action. According to media reports, isolated acts of vandalism of places of worship continued to occur. In October unidentified individuals wrote on the door of the home of the president of Bursa’s Pir Sultan Abdal Association, an Alevi organization, “It is your time for death.” In February an unidentified person or persons sprayed graffiti on the Surp Hreshdagabet Armenian Church in the Balat District of Istanbul with derogatory messages on the door and walls. Anti-Semitic discourse continued in public dialogue, particularly on social media. In July a video posted on social media showed children at an apparent summer camp being led in chants calling for “death to Jews.” In January the premier of the film Cicero generated controversy and condemnation when the scenery for the premier’s red-carpet walk depicted features of a concentration camp, including striped uniforms draped on barbed-wire fencing and guard dogs. Some progovernment news outlets published conspiracy theories involving Jews and blamed Jews for the country’s economic difficulties and potential sanctions. In October social media users and media outlets shared photographs of anti-Christian and anti-Semitic posters hung at municipal bus stops in the central Anatolian town of Konya by the local branches of the Anatolian Youth Association and National Youth Foundation. In December the local prosecutor’s office in Konya said in a statement it would not pursue prosecution in the case because the act in question did not present “a clear and eminent threat to the public safety.”

The Ambassador, visiting senior U.S. officials, and other embassy and consulate officials continued to engage with government officials to emphasize the importance of respect for religious diversity and equal treatment under the law. Embassy and consulate representatives and visiting U.S. government officials urged the government to lift restrictions on religious groups, make progress on property restitution, and address specific cases of religious discrimination. Senior officials continued to call on the government to allow the reopening of Halki Seminary and to allow for the training of clergy members from all communities in the country. Embassy and consulate officials also met with a wide range of religious community leaders, including those of the Greek Orthodox, Jewish, Armenian Apostolic Orthodox, Catholic, Protestant, Alevi, and Syriac Orthodox communities, to underscore the importance of religious freedom and interfaith tolerance and to condemn discrimination against members of any religious group.

Section I. Religious Demography

The U.S. government estimates the total population at 81.6 million (midyear 2019 estimate). According to the government, 99 percent of the population is Muslim, approximately 77.5 percent of which is Hanafi Sunni. Representatives of other religious groups estimate their members represent 0.2 percent of the population, while the most recent public opinion surveys published in January by Turkish research firm KONDA suggest approximately 3 percent of the population self-identifies as atheist and 2 percent as nonbelievers.

Leaders of Alevi foundations estimate Alevis comprise 25 to 31 percent of the population; Pew Research Center reporting indicates 5 percent of Muslims state they are Alevis. The Shia Jafari community estimates its members make up 4 percent of the population.

Non-Muslim religious groups are mostly concentrated in Istanbul and other large cities, as well as in the southeast. Exact figures are not available; however, these groups self-report approximately 90,000 Armenian Apostolic Orthodox Christians (including migrants from Armenia); 25,000 Roman Catholics (including migrants from Africa and the Philippines); and 16,000 Jews. There are also approximately 25,000 Syrian Orthodox Christians (also known as Syriacs); 15,000 Russian Orthodox Christians (mostly immigrants from Russia who hold residence permits); and 10,000 Baha’is.

Estimates of other groups include fewer than 1,000 Yezidis; 5,000 Jehovah’s Witnesses; 7,000-10,000 members of Protestant denominations; fewer than 3,000 Chaldean Christians; and up to 2,500 Greek Orthodox Christians. There also are small, undetermined numbers of Bulgarian Orthodox, Nestorian, Georgian Orthodox, Ukrainian Orthodox, Syriac Catholic, Armenian Catholic, and Maronite Christians. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Church of Jesus Christ) estimates its membership at 300 individuals.

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

The constitution defines the country as a secular state and provides for freedom of conscience, religious belief, conviction, expression, and worship. It stipulates individuals may not be compelled to participate in religious ceremonies or disclose their religion, and acts of worship may be conducted freely as long as they are not directed against the “integrity of the state.” The constitution prohibits discrimination on religious grounds and exploitation or abuse of “religion or religious feelings, or things held sacred by religion” or “even partially basing” the order of the state on religious tenets.

The constitution establishes the Diyanet, through which the state coordinates Islamic matters. According to the law, the Diyanet’s mandate is to enable and promote the belief, practices, and moral principles of Islam, with a primary focus on Sunni Islam; educate the public about religious issues; and administer mosques. The Diyanet operates under the Office of the President, with its head appointed by the president and administered by a 16-person council elected by clerics and university theology faculties. The Diyanet has five main departments, called high councils: Religious Services, Hajj and Umrah Services, Education, Publications, and Public Relations. While the law does not require that all members of the council be Sunni Muslim, in practice this has been the case.

There is no separate blasphemy law; the penal code provides punishment for “provoking people to be rancorous and hostile,” including showing public disrespect for religious beliefs. The penal code prohibits religious clergy from “reproaching or vilifying” the government or the laws of the state while performing their duties. Violations are punishable by prison terms of one month to one year, or three months to two years if the crime involves inciting others to disobey the law.

The law criminalizes “insulting values held sacred by a religion,” interfering with a religious group’s services, or defacing its property. Insulting a religion is punishable by six months to one year in prison.

Although registration with the government is not mandatory for religious groups to operate, registering the group is required to request legal recognition for places of worship. Gaining legal recognition requires permission from the municipalities for the construction or designation of a new place of worship. It is against the law to hold religious services at a location not recognized by the government as a place of worship; the government may fine or close the venues of those violating the law.

Interfering with the service of a religious group is punishable by one to three years in prison; defacing religious property is punishable by three months to one year in prison; and destroying or demolishing religious property is punishable by one to four years in prison. Because it is illegal to hold religious services in places not registered as places of worship, in practice, these legal proscriptions apply only to recognized religious groups.

The law prohibits Sufi and other religious-social orders (tarikats) and lodges (cemaats), although the government generally does not enforce these restrictions.

Military service is obligatory for males; there is no provision for conscientious objection. A government policy allows individuals to pay a fee of 31,343 Turkish Lira (TL) ($5,300) instead of performing full military service; however, they are required to complete a three-week basic training program. Those who oppose mandatory military service on religious grounds may face charges in military and civilian courts and, if convicted, could be subject to prison sentences ranging from two months to two years.

The leadership and administrative structures of religious communities do not have a legal personality, leaving them unable to directly buy or hold title to property or press claims in court. Communities rely on separate foundations or associations governed by individual boards to hold and administer assets and property.

A 1935 law prohibits the establishment of foundations based on the religion or ethnicity of members but grants exemptions to foundations existing before the enactment of the law. Non-Muslim citizens direct these longstanding foundations; 167 continue to exist, the majority of which are associated with the Greek Orthodox, Armenian Orthodox, and Jewish communities. In practice, a religious group formed after the 1935 law may successfully apply to register as an association or foundation provided its stated objective is charitable, educational, or cultural rather than religious. According to the Protestant community, there are six foundations (four existing before the passage of the 1935 foundation law), 36 associations, and more than 30 representative offices linked with these associations.

The General Directorate of Foundations (GDF), under the Ministry of Culture and Tourism, regulates the activities and affiliated properties of all foundations, and it assesses whether they are operating within the stated objectives of their organizational statute. There are several categories of foundations, including those religious community foundations existing prior to the 1935 law.

If a foundation becomes inactive, the government may petition the courts to rule it is no longer operational and transfer its assets to the state. Only a court order may close a foundation of any category, except under a state of emergency, during which the government may close foundations by decree. The state of emergency instituted in 2016 ended in July 2018, but laws similar to regulations during the state of emergency remain in force.

A foundation may earn income through companies and rent-earning properties, as well as from donations. The process for establishing a foundation is lengthier and more expensive than that for establishing an association, but associations have fewer legal rights than foundations at the local level.

Associations must be nonprofit and receive financial support only in the form of donations. To register as an association, a group must submit an application to the provincial governor’s office with supporting documentation, including bylaws and a list of founding members. A group must also obtain permission from the Ministry of the Interior as part of its application if a foreign association or nonprofit organization is a founding member; if foreigners are founding members of the group, the group must submit copies of its residence permits. If the governorate finds the bylaws unlawful or unconstitutional, the association must change the bylaws to meet the legal requirements. Under the law, the governorate may fine or otherwise punish association officials for actions deemed to violate the organization’s bylaws. Only a court order may close an association, except under a state of emergency, during which the government may close associations as well as foundations by decree. The civil code requires associations not to discriminate on the grounds of religion, ethnicity, or race.

By law prisoners have the right to practice their religion while incarcerated; however, not all prisons have dedicated places of worship. According to the law, prison authorities must allow religious groups visitation by clergy members and allow them to offer books and other materials that are part of the prisoner’s faith.

The constitution establishes compulsory religious and moral instruction in public and private schools at all levels starting with fourth grade, with content determined by the Ministry of National Education’s Department of Religious Instruction, which falls under the authority of the Office of the Presidency. Religion classes are two hours per week for students in grades four through 12. Only students who marked “Christian” or “Jewish” on their national identity cards may apply for an exemption from religion classes. Atheists, agnostics, Alevis, or other non-Sunni Muslims, Baha’is, Yezidis, or those who left the religion section blank on their national identity card are not exempt from the classes. Middle and high school students may take additional Islamic religious courses as electives for two hours per week during regular school hours.

The government continues to issue chip-enabled national identity cards that contain no visible section to identify religious affiliation. The information on religious affiliation is recorded in the chip and remains visible to authorized public officials as “qualified personal data” and protected as private information. National identity cards issued in the past, which continue in circulation and only require replacement if the card is damaged, the bearer has changed marriage status, or the individual is no longer recognizable in the photograph, contain a space for religious identification with the option of leaving the space blank. These older cards included the following religious identities as options: Muslim, Greek Orthodox, non-Orthodox Christian, Jewish, Hindu, Zoroastrian, Confucian, Taoist, Buddhist, No Religion, or Other. Baha’i, Alevi, Yezidi, and other religious groups with known populations in the country were not options.

According to labor law, private and public sector employers may not discriminate against employees based on religion. Employees may seek legal action against an employer through the Labor Court. If an employee can prove a violation occurred, the employee may be entitled to compensation of up to four months of salary in addition to the reversal of the employment decision.

Government Practices

Multiple monitoring organizations and media outlets, including Middle East Concern, International Christian Concern, World Watch Monitor, Mission Network News, and Voice of Martyrs, reported entry bans, denial of residency permit extensions, and deportations for long-time residents affiliated with Protestant churches in the country. On December 2, the Ministry of Interior’s Directorate for Migration Management (DGMM) announced that as of January 1, 2020, the government would deny extension requests to long-term residents for tourist purposes, in the absence of another reason to request a residency permit (i.e. marriage, work, study). Several religious minority ministers, including Christians, conducted religious services while resident in in the country on long-term tourist residence permits. While similar measures occurred in previous years, multiple groups said they perceived a significant increase in the number of removals and entry bans during the year.

Multiple reports said these Protestant communities could not train clergy in the country and relied on foreign volunteers to serve them. Local Protestant communities stated they aimed to develop indigenous Turkish leaders in their congregations because it was becoming increasingly difficult to rely on foreign volunteers; however, they faced difficulties because they could not operate training facilities in-country. Community sources also said some of the deportations and entry bans during the year targeted foreign-citizen members of the community who had lived legally, as long-term residents, in the country for decades and who had previously not experienced any immigration difficulties. According to community members, these immigration procedures also affected a local community’s ability to raise funds for local churches because foreign clergy members attracted individual donations and support from church communities in their countries of origin. Some of the individuals with entry bans or resident permit denials requested review of their immigration status through the country’s legal system. None of the cases reached conclusion by year’s end and could take several years to resolve due to the complexities of and backlog in the judicial system, according to media reports.

According to a report by the European Association of Jehovah’s Witnesses, released and presented to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe on September 19, 63 Jehovah’s Witnesses faced prosecution as conscientious objectors, with 44 individuals facing 177 different charges and fines totaling more than $54,000. The report stated a person may be called for military service multiple times per year and charged as a “draft evader” because there was no form of approved alternative service in the country. The report also stated the Ministry of Defense sent letters to the individual’s employer to encourage the termination of his or her employment.

The decision by the Church of Jesus Christ to remove its volunteers and international staff from the country remained in effect throughout the year. In April 2018 the Church cited safety reasons as the reason for the removal. According to local members, some followers stayed away from church because they feared retribution and discrimination. Some said they had lost their jobs, including in the public sector, because of their faith, and they experienced difficulties in finding new employment.

The government continued to treat Alevi Islam as a heterodox Muslim “sect” and not to recognize Alevi houses of worship (cemevis), despite a ruling by the Supreme Court of Appeals that cemevis are places of worship. In March 2018, the head of Diyanet said mosques were the appropriate places of worship for both Alevis and Sunnis.

In December the Armenian community elected Bishop Sahak Masalyan as the 85th Armenian Apostolic Patriarch of Istanbul. Some members of the community said in public statements and social media posts that the government’s involvement in the process and the community’s decision not to oppose the state-issued election regulations undermined the legitimacy of the process. In September the Ministry of Interior issued regulations governing the election of a new patriarch following the death of Mesrob II Mutafyan in March. According to public statements and media reports, multiple Church officials and rights groups widely criticized the regulations, stating they infringed on the community’s religious freedom by limiting eligible candidates to bishops currently serving within the patriarchate. The regulations also lowered the voting age from 21 to 18 and expanded the number of elected delegates from 89 to 120, which Church officials said they regarded as positive steps. In July the Constitutional Court published its ruling that the Istanbul governor’s decision to block the patriarchal elections in 2018 violated the right of religious freedom for the community. In February of that year, the Istanbul governor’s office denied a 2017 application by the Armenian Patriarchate to hold patriarchal elections, stating the patriarchate had not met the required conditions for an election since the patriarch had not passed away or resigned.

The government continued to provide training for Sunni Muslim clerics while restricting other religious groups from training clergy inside the country. Because of a lack of seminaries within the country, the Greek Orthodox and Armenian Orthodox Patriarchates remained unable to train clergy. Protestant churches also reported an inability to train clergy in the country made their communities dependent on foreign clergy. Local Protestant church representatives raised concerns that the government’s reported accelerated deportation of foreign clergy members hurt their community’s ability to instruct local clergy unable to travel abroad for training.

Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I again called on the government to allow the Halki Seminary to reopen as an independent institution to enable training of Greek Orthodox clergy in the country. A 1971 Constitutional Court ruling prohibited the operation of private institutions of higher education and led to the seminary’s closure. Amendments to the constitution in 1982 allowed for the establishment of private institutions of higher education but also placed significant restrictions on the institutions, and the seminary was not permitted to reopen and operate under its traditions. According to the ecumenical patriarch, the continued closure interrupted a tradition of instruction dating back centuries to the historical roots of the school as a monastery. In July 2018, the Diyanet announced plans to open an Islamic educational center on the same island as the shuttered seminary. At year’s end, the Diyanet had not taken further steps to advance the project.

According to media reports, several imams criticized the Diyanet for becoming increasingly politicized after those imams were dismissed from their posts, reportedly for not supporting the government. In statements to media, multiple former employees said the Diyanet did not apply its regulations fairly. The justification provided for the dismissals was a “breach of guidelines,” applicable to all imams, including neither praising nor criticizing political parties; however, some of the dismissed imams said the sanctions were not applied to those supporting the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP). According to media reports, an imam lost his position after accepting an invitation to lead a prayer for an opposition party before the local elections on March 31.

In October the Diyanet established a radio and television commission tasked with reviewing products prepared by the Diyanet itself or public institutions, agencies or production companies.

The government continued to interpret the 1923 Lausanne Treaty, which refers broadly to “non-Muslim minorities,” as granting special legal minority status exclusively to three recognized groups: Armenian Apostolic Orthodox Christians, Jews, and Greek Orthodox Christians. The government did not recognize the leadership or administrative structures of non-Muslim minorities, such as the Armenian Apostolic and the Ecumenical Patriarchates and Chief Rabbinate, as legal entities, leaving them unable to buy or hold title to property or to press claims in court. These three groups, along with other minority religious communities, had to rely on independent foundations they previously organized, overseen by separate governing boards, to hold and control individual religious properties.

Members of religious communities reported the inability to hold elections for the governing boards of their foundations remained an impediment to managing their affairs. They said when board members died, retired, or left the country, foundation boards had a more difficult time fulfilling their duties and ran the risk of eventually not functioning without new members. If they reached the point of no longer functioning, the government could then declare the foundation defunct and transfer its properties and other assets to the state.

In March the Directorate General of Foundations issued a decree allowing foundations to appoint members to their governing boards but did not issue new regulations to permit elections, which had been pending since 2013. The Freedom of Belief Initiative, a human rights project of the Norwegian Helsinki Committee, said the action was contrary to the traditions of foundations in the country, describing it as further interference in the rights of religious communities. Some foundations stated they would not make use of the new order and instead would await new regulations to hold elections for their governing boards. According to local religious community representatives, without the ability to hold new elections, governing boards risked losing the ability to manage the activities and properties of their communities, and foundations could become inactive without newly elected leadership.

The trial of 13 individuals charged with conspiracy to commit a large-scale assault on an Izmit Protestant church and kill its pastor in 2013 continued throughout the year.

In January the ECHR ruled the government violated the European Convention on Human Rights, which guarantees freedom of assembly and association, because it refused to allow Seventh-day Adventists to establish a foundation. The court ruling required the government to pay six members of the congregation in Istanbul a total compensation of 8,724 euros ($9,800). Compensation could include legal assistance and legal and court registration fees; by year’s end there was no information available on whether the government had compensated the six individuals and no disclosure of any government payments.

According to media reports, in May a court released Uighur activist Abdulkadir Yapcan after nearly three years in detention, but he remained under judicial controls that limited his movements to his neighborhood in Istanbul. The deportation case against him continued at year’s end. In 2003 China listed Yapcan as one of its 11 most-wanted terrorists and accused him of supporting violence and founding a terrorist organization. Uighur activists and rights organizations, however, said the extradition request was punishment for his political positions. His defense attorney said China did not produce any evidence to substantiate its claims despite previous promises to do so, according to public statements to local media after the May hearing. In 2016 the ECHR ruled against removing Yapcan from Turkey during the ongoing court case due to concerns about his safety and potential refoulement to China should he be deported to a third country. In August media reports quoted Interior Minister Soylu stating, “We do not send anyone back to China if they face persecution.”

The government continued not to recognize Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I as the leader of the world’s approximately 300 million Orthodox Christians, consistent with the government’s stance that there was no legal obligation for it to do so. The government’s position remained that the ecumenical patriarch was only the religious leader of the country’s Greek Orthodox minority population. The government continued to permit only Turkish citizens to vote in the Ecumenical Patriarchate’s Holy Synod or be elected patriarch but continued its practice of granting citizenship to Greek Orthodox metropolitans under the terms of the government’s 2011 stopgap solution intended to widen the pool of candidates eligible to become the next patriarch. The Istanbul Governorate, which represents the central government in that city, continued to maintain that leaders of the Greek Orthodox (Ecumenical Patriarchate), Armenian Apostolic Orthodox, and Jewish communities must be Turkish citizens.

The Armenian Apostolic Patriarchate and the Ecumenical Patriarchate continued to seek legal recognition, and their communities operated as conglomerations of individual religious foundations.

Multiple Protestant church representatives continued to report bureaucratic difficulties in registering places of worship. Church representatives said they had to continue meeting in unregistered locations for worship services. According to Protestant group representatives, local officials continued to impose zoning standards on churches, including minimum space requirements not imposed on mosques. Officials did not apply this requirement to Sunni Muslim congregations, which they permitted to build worship facilities in malls, airports, and other smaller spaces. Additionally, some Protestant churches reported local authorities did not allow them to display crosses on the exterior of their buildings.

In October a court ruled the Ministry of Interior and governorate of the eastern city of Malatya, Malatya Governorate, were not liable in a 2007 case involving the killings of three persons in an attack on a Christian publishing house in the city. Previously, a court had fined the two government agencies as part of a longstanding case. The lawyer of the victims’ families said they would appeal the October ruling. According to their lawyer, if the ruling held, the families would have to return compensation totaling 900,000 TL ($151,000) with interest to the ministry and the governorate.

In February an Istanbul court acquitted Berna Lacin on charges of insulting religious values, sometimes referred to locally as “blasphemy charges.” The charges stemmed from Lacin’s 2018 post on Twitter about the alleged number of rapes in Medina, Saudi Arabia. The tweet was in response to calls by the Grand Union Party, families of victims, and some newspapers to reinstate capital punishment for child abuse crimes following a wave of molestation reports in media. “If capital punishment was a solution, the city of Medina would not be breaking records in rape cases,” Lacin said in her post. In the indictment, the prosecutor said Lacin insulted people’s religious values and went beyond what was permissible under the law governing freedom of expression.

In February the ECHR rejected the country’s appeal to reduce the 54,400-euro ($61,100) compensation it was obligated to pay the Alevi Cem Foundation. The Cem Foundation took the government to the ECHR in 2010 for discrimination for not paying the electric bills of Alevi places of worship, a service provided for mosques. The government appealed for a fee reduction to 23,300 euros ($26,200). In November 2018 the Supreme Court of Appeals ruled cemevis are places of worship and therefore should receive the same benefits as Sunni mosques, including being exempt from paying utility bills. Alevi organizations continued to call on the government to comply with the ruling throughout the year.

In February the GDF announced restoration plans for, and began work on, the Surp Giragos Armenian and Mar Petyun Chaldean Churches, both in Surp District, Diyarbakir. The Kursunlu Mosque reopened in March following the completion of structural renovations. Religious communities challenged the government’s 2016 expropriation of their properties damaged in clashes between government security forces and the U.S. government-designated terrorist group Kurdistan Worker’s Party (PKK). The government expropriated those properties for its stated goal of “post-conflict reconstruction.” In September 2016, the GDF began restoring the expropriated Armenian Catholic Church; the restoration continued through year’s end, and the church was not accessible for public use. During the year, the government again did not pay restitution and compensation to the religious groups for the expropriation of property damaged in fighting with the PKK.

During the year, the government did not return properties seized in previous decades; it returned 56 properties to the Syriac community in 2018. Representatives from various communities said they continued to pursue property returns through the appropriate legal and government channels. From 2011, when the compensation law was passed, through 2013, when the period for submitting compensation applications expired, the GDF received 1,560 applications from religious minority foundations that sought compensation for seized properties. Because the period for submitting new applications expired in 2013, no new applications were filed during the year. In previous years, the GDF returned 333 properties and paid compensation for 21 additional properties. The GDF had rejected the other applications pending from 2011; it said the applications did not meet the criteria as outlined in the 2011 compensation law. The Greek Orthodox, Armenian Orthodox, Jewish, Syrian Orthodox, Bulgarian Orthodox, Georgian Orthodox, Chaldean, and Armenian Protestant communities, which had previously submitted applications for the return of properties, continued to say these unresolved claims were an issue for their communities. Due to their legal status, recognized religious foundations were eligible to receive compensation for their seized properties, but religious institutions and communities without legally recognized foundations were not.

According to media reports, in June the Ovacik District Governorate sent a letter to the muhtars (village leaders) of eight villages in the district ordering them to evacuate as soon as possible due to the villages “being in a natural disaster zone.” The district is home to many Alevis and their religious sites. According to media reports, the villages were scheduled for removal because the government had awarded a Canadian-Turkish mining consortium rights to conduct exploratory mining in Munzur National Park – a spiritual area for the Alevis containing many holy sites. The letter did not specify when the villages were to be evacuated; as of December there was no public update on the case.

In March President Erdogan raised the possibility that the status of the Hagia Sophia in Istanbul could be changed from a museum to a mosque during a televised interview, adding that the name could change to Ayasophia Mosque. The government took no action following the president’s comments.

Progovernment newspaper Yeni Safak reported in November that the Council of State (the highest administrative court) ruled a former church and mosque now serving as the Chora Museum should be returned to its status as a mosque, sparking concerns in the global Christian community that this decision could pave the way for similar changes to the status of the Hagia Sophia. The museum, famed for its mosaics and frescos depicting Christian imagery, was originally constructed and repeatedly renovated as the Greek Orthodox Church of the Holy Savior in the fifth century and then converted into the Kariye Mosque in 1511 before becoming a museum in 1945. According to the Yeni Safak report, the Council of State determined the 1945 decision to designate the structure as a museum was illegal because it violated the charter of the foundation that owned the then-mosque; the charter stated the building would serve indefinitely as a mosque. Yeni Safak said the decision moved to the cabinet for action; no changes to the museum’s status were reported at year’s end.

Religious communities, particularly Alevis, continued to raise concerns about several of the government’s education policies. At year’s end, the government continued not to comply with a 2013 ECHR ruling that found the government’s compulsory religion courses in public schools violated educational freedom. The ECHR denied the government’s appeal of the ruling in 2015 and upheld the Alevi community’s legal claim that the government-mandated courses promoted Sunni Islam and were contrary to Alevi religious convictions. Authorities added material on Alevism to the religious course curriculum in 2011 after the ECHR decision, but Alevi groups stated the material was inadequate, and in some cases, incorrect. In February various Alevi organizations issued a joint statement: “Alevis respect all religions … but will keep their distance from those who ignore, limit or attempt to transform Alevism.” They also called on the government to implement the ECHR decisions.

Non-Sunni Muslims and secular Muslims said they continued to face difficulty obtaining exemptions from compulsory religious instruction in primary and secondary schools and often had to choose from electives dealing with different aspects of Sunni Islam, particularly if their identification cards listed their religion as Muslim. The government said the compulsory instruction covered a range of world religions, but some religious groups, including Alevis and members of Christian denominations, stated the courses largely reflected Hanafi Sunni Islamic doctrine and contained negative and incorrect information about other religious groups, such as some educational texts referring to Alevi beliefs as mysticism. In February the Konya Regional Administrative Court ruled the changes made in the compulsory religion course curriculum did not eliminate violations to educational freedom as ruled by the ECHR in 2013. In June the Istanbul 12th Regional Administrative Court accepted an Alevi parent’s appeal for his son’s exclusion from the compulsory religious course.

Members of other minority religious groups, including Protestants, said they continued to have difficulty obtaining exemptions from religion classes. Some rights groups said that because schools provided no alternative for students exempted from the compulsory religious instruction, those students stood out and as a result could face additional social stigma.

In March the Council of State ruled to end a three-year agreement between the Ministry of National Education and the Islamic Hizmet Foundation to provide “moral values” education in schools. The state council ruled the 2017 agreement contradicted a provision of the constitution that requires the conduct of education in state schools be performed by public sector employees. In September the ministry issued a new regulation enabling international organizations and NGOs to organize social activities in schools. In 2018 the teachers union Egitim-Sen applied to the Council of State, which hears cases seeking to change administrative policies of the government, to end the moral values education protocol, and stated conducting such programs during school hours would force students to attend regardless of religious affiliation.

According to media reports and public statements, in January administrators of an Istanbul public high school reprimanded with letters to their files 12 students for participating in a December 2018 demonstration where they stated “Islamist students supported by school principals” pressured them to attend “religious conversations” in their spare time. Egitim-Is, an education sector union, criticized the school administration and said the government had handed over secular schools to religious groups.

According to media reports, in January a religious culture and ethics teacher at a high school in Istanbul, Cemil Kilic, was suspended from duty reportedly after making public comments favorably comparing the morals of atheists and deists to those of “self-professed” Muslims and saying headscarves were not obligatory in Islam. In May he was allowed to resume his duties in the central province of Nigde while awaiting the ruling of a disciplinary committee. According to media reports, Kilic faced possible dismissal pending the outcome of the committee’s deliberations.

In January a headmaster in Ankara distributed a leaflet and issued a warning against teachers who wore high heels, stating it was against Islam. The main opposition party, the Republican People’s Party (CHP), demanded the headmaster’s removal from office. The headmaster subsequently issued an apology to the teachers.

In August Egitim-Sen stated only one of every five students was learning in gender-segregated classrooms. Egitim-Sen said this violated the rights of children living under a secular constitution and it contradicted the 2018 National Education Ministry regulation allowing separate classrooms for girls and boys in multiprogram (offering regular, technical, and vocation programs) high schools. Officials of the Ministry of Education denied allegations the regulation was a step towards creating single-gender classrooms in all schools. Multiprogram schools continued to bring regular, technical, and vocational high schools together in less populated areas where the requirement for the minimum number of students for each program could not be met.

The Mental Health Professionals’ Platform in February criticized the continuing assignment of Diyanet employees to university dormitories as an example of greater religious influence on the education system. It stated social services should not be provided by individuals without the appropriate professional background. In 2017 the Diyanet announced a plan to expand and make permanent a pilot program launched in 2016 to assign Diyanet employees, including imams, to university dormitories operated by the government in every province. The Diyanet stated the officials would provide “moral guidance” to address the “moral values” problems in the dorms and provide the Diyanet’s provincial muftis with performance reviews every six months.

The government continued to provide funding for public, private, and religious schools teaching Islam. It did not do so for minority schools recognized under the Lausanne Treaty, except to pay the salaries for courses taught in Turkish, such as Turkish literature. The minority religious communities funded all their other expenses through donations, including from church foundations and alumni.

The government continued to permit Greek Orthodox, Armenian Orthodox, and Jewish religious community foundations to operate schools under the supervision of the Ministry of National Education. Children of undocumented Armenian migrants and Armenian refugees from Syria could also attend. Because the government continued to classify legal migrant and refugee children as “visitors,” they were ineligible to receive a diploma from these schools. The curricula of these schools included information unique to the cultures of the three groups and teachable in the minority groups’ languages. According to members of the Syriac Orthodox community, which has operated a preschool since 2014, the community was still unable to open additional schools for financial reasons. The government did not grant permission to other religious groups to operate schools.

Parents of some students again criticized the practice of converting some nonreligious public schools into imam hatip religious schools. Sources said this created a hurdle for those preferring to attend secular public schools because the number of imam hatip middle schools increased by more than one hundred and the number of students by nearly 40,000 for the 2018-2019 academic year, according to official statistics. These sources rejected government claims that demand drove the increase, and they said limited options often compelled nonreligious families to send students to the religious schools. The country’s 2019 investment program in the general budget included the government’s associated priorities, with 460 million TL ($77.42 million) allocated for new imam hatip schools, compared with TL 30 million ($5.05 million) for new science schools.

Many public buildings, including universities, continued to maintain small mosques. In June 2017, the Ministry of National Education issued a regulation requiring every new school to have an Islamic prayer room. The government continued to deny Alevis the right to establish similar places of worship in government buildings that did not contain places of worship for non-Sunnis. Alevi leaders reported the approximately 2,500 to 3,000 cemevis in the country were insufficient to meet demand. The government continued to state that Diyanet-funded mosques were available to Alevis and all Muslims, regardless of their school of religious thought.

In January several Alevi foundations requested the end of an ongoing program that takes school children ages six to 13 to local mosques for religious instruction during their two-week winter break. In 2018 the Ministry of National Education signed a contract with Server Youth and Sports Club for 50,000 children drawn from each of the 81 provinces to participate in the voluntary program. Alevi representatives said they objected to the program because students not participating could be “singled out” for not participating and as being different from the other students.

In November an IYI Party MP commented on a government official’s family’s “excessive” display of wealth on social media, posting “There is a group of people that have become rich due to their undeserved income and live luxuriously; we call them Protestant Muslims. These people have become Jews, mentally.” The post received widespread criticism from social media users and members of the Jewish community.

According to media reports, in February the Prophet Lovers Foundation (Peygamber Sevdalıları Vakfı), a group based in the southeast of the country, received permission to conduct religious examinations in public schools. One exam answer stated the concept of Jews and Christians going to heaven was a “poisonous idea.”

The government continued not to authorize clergy of religious groups designated as non-Islamic or heterodox Islam, including Alevi leaders (dedes), to register and officiate at marriages on behalf of the state. Imams received this authority in November 2017. Some critics continued to state the law solely addressed the demands of some within the Sunni Muslim majority and not the needs of other religious groups.

The Diyanet regulated the operation of all registered mosques. It paid the salaries of 107,206 Sunni personnel at the end of 2018, the most recent year for which data were available, compared with 109,332 in 2017. The government did not pay the salaries of religious leaders, instructors, or other staff belonging to other religious groups.

The government continued to provide land for the construction of Sunni mosques and to fund their construction through municipalities. According to the Diyanet’s most recent published statistics, there were 88,681 mosques in the country in 2018, compared with 88,021 Diyanet-operated mosques in 2107. In May President Erdogan inaugurated the largest mosque in the country. Located in Istanbul, it can accommodate 63,000. Although Alevi groups were able to build some new cemevis, the government continued to decline to provide financial support for their construction and maintenance in most cases.

In August leaders of the Syriac Orthodox community broke ground on the St. Ephrem (Mor Efrem) Church in Istanbul during a ceremony attended by President Erdogan and representatives of other religious communities. Once completed, it will be the first newly constructed church since the founding of the Turkish Republic in 1923. To date, the approximately 18,000-member Syriac Orthodox community in Istanbul has used churches of other communities, in addition to its one current church, to hold services. Erdogan said the church would add “new richness” to the city and stated, “Our region has been the heart of religious, ethnic, and cultural diversity,” according to media reports. Community representatives said the project would not have been possible without the public support of the president.

The government continued to permit annual and other commemorative religious worship services at religiously significant Christian sites previously converted to state museums, such as St. Peter’s Church in Antakya, St. Nicholas’ Church near Demre, St. Paul Church near Isparta, and the House of the Virgin Mary, near Selcuk. The Ecumenical Patriarchate again cancelled an annual service at Sumela Monastery, near Trabzon, because of its continuing restoration. A portion of the Sumela Monastery reopened to visitors in May after renovations were completed on part of the complex, but large portions continued under renovation.

In April a court sentenced the chairperson of Alperen Ocaklari Foundation to one year in prison for inciting public hatred and animosity during a 2017 protest in front of the Neve Shalom Synagogue in Istanbul. During the incident, a group hurled rocks at the synagogue, kicked its doors, and threatened members of the Jewish community. The protest was a reaction to the placement of metal detectors by Israel in front of Al Aqsa Mosque, according to the members of the protesting group.

In June a local court in Bursa approved the application by the Protestant community in Bursa to start a foundation. At year’s end the government still had not responded to a request by the Protestant foundation to allow long-term use of a church renovated in 2018 using government funding. Roman Catholic, Orthodox, and Turkish Protestant congregations continued to share the building, owned by the GDF for more than 10 years.

The government continued to provide incarcerated Sunni Muslims with mesjids (small mosques) and Sunni preachers in larger prisons. Alevis and non-Muslims did not have clerics from their own faiths serving in prisons; however, clergy of other faiths were permitted to enter prisons with the permission of the public prosecutor to minister to their adherents as long as doing so was not considered a threat to a facility’s security.

For the second year in a row, the annual Mass at the historic Armenian Akdamar Church near Van in the east of the country was officiated by the then-acting Armenian patriarch. Authorities canceled annual services between 2015-2017, citing security concerns arising from clashes between the military and the PKK.

Government funding for daily and weekly newspapers published by minority communities increased from a total of TL 200,000 ($33,700) in 2018 to 250,000 TL ($42,100) during the year.

Jewish citizens again expressed concern about anti-Semitism and security threats. According to members of the community, the government continued to coordinate with them on security issues. They said the government measures were helpful and the government was responsive to requests for security.

In December the Gaziantep Synagogue, located in the southeast of the country, reopened for a Hanukkah celebration after remaining closed for 40 years due to the shrinking size of the congregation. The synagogue was used as a cultural center by Gaziantep University until reopening for special occasions following renovations by the GDF.

A then-AKP MP denounced in a social media post the red carpet premier of the film Cicero, which depicted detailed features of a concentration camp, stating “There can be no explanation” for using “one of the most tragic and calamitous crimes in the history of humanity as material for entertainment at a film gala.”

Ankara University hosted an event to commemorate Holocaust Remembrance Day on January 24, in collaboration with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. The Foreign Ministry issued a statement commemorating the victims and underlined the service of Turkish diplomats who aided Jewish victims of persecution by providing Turkish passports and identity documents to help them flee the tragedy. The deputy foreign minister for EU affairs, members of the diplomatic corps, Chief Rabbi of Turkey Ishak Haleva, other leaders of the Jewish community, and high school students took part in the event. In February the government for the fifth year in a row commemorated the nearly 800 Jewish refugees who died aboard the Struma, a ship that sank off the coast of Istanbul in 1942. The governor of Istanbul, Chief Rabbi Haleva, other members of the Jewish community, and members of the diplomatic community attended the commemoration.

In April and September President Erdogan again sent messages to the Jewish community celebrating Passover and Rosh Hashanah. The messages described Turkey as a symbol of “love and tolerance” and recognized “diversity as the most important wealth that strengthens unity and solidarity.” In December the Jewish community celebrated Hanukkah with a ceremony at Galata Tower Square in Istanbul’s Beyoglu neighborhood. President Erdogan extended his congratulations and best wishes for wellbeing and happiness to mark the beginning of the Festival of Lights. He said in a written statement, “It is of great importance for us to ensure each and every one of our citizens’ liberty to practice their faith.”

Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom

In May a Muslim televangelist, Nihat Hatipoglu, converted a 13-year-old Armenian Christian boy to Islam during a live broadcast on private television channel ATV without the permission of his parents. Members of the Armenian community denounced the act as a forced conversion and violation of the Lausanne Treaty. Then-acting Armenian Apostolic patriarch Atesyan also issued a statement and personally expressed his concerns to the chairman of the Diyanet. MPs of the ruling AKP and opposition People’s Democratic Party (HDP) criticized the conversion, and Turkish Armenian HDP MP Garo Paylan filed an official complaint with the radio and television oversight body.

In October unidentified individuals wrote on the door of the home of the president of Bursa’s Pir Sultan Abdal Association, an Alevi organization, “It is your time for death.” Police launched a criminal investigation into the incident. The investigation continued through the end of the year.

Some converts to Christian Protestant groups from Islam or from Christian Orthodoxy reported social shunning within their family, among friends, and at their workplaces following their contacts’ discovery of the conversion, according to local community members.

The premier of the film Cicero in January generated controversy and condemnation when the scenery for the premier’s red carpet walk depicted features of a concentration camp, including striped uniforms draped on barbed-wire fencing and guard dogs. The local Jewish community, columnists, a then-AKP MP, and social media users denounced the display as disgraceful. The filmmakers subsequently apologized.

Some progovernment news outlets published conspiracy theories involving Jews and blamed Jews for the country’s economic difficulties and potential sanctions.

During the campaign for Istanbul mayor, altered images of opposition CHP Party candidate Ekrem Imamoglu showing him shaking hands with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and meeting with a group of Orthodox Jews appeared on social media in an effort to discredit him, according to commentators. Disparaging comments and statements calling Imamoglu a “friend of Zionism” accompanied the images.

Anti-Semitic rhetoric continued in print media and on social media throughout the year. According to a Hrant Dink Foundation project on hate speech, there were 430 published instances of anti-Jewish rhetoric in the press between January and August depicting Jews as violent, conspiratorial, and a threat to the country, compared with 899 published instances during the same period in 2018. A reader’s letter published in the newspaper Yeni Akit stated Jewish residents in Istanbul trained street dogs to bite Muslims and repeated historic accusations of blood libel. Some commentators criticized the letter as ridiculous, and Mustafa Yeneroglu, an MP formerly with the ruling AKP party, denounced the content as “the language of the Nazis,” according to multiple media reports.

In January anti-Semitic comments surfaced on social media following an increase in gas and electric bills, with some users reacting by asking, “What have we done to get such a bill; did we burn Jews?” The editor-in-chief of Shalom, a Jewish community newspaper, called the comments a despicable example of racism and a reaction of sick minds. He added that such forms of anti-Semitism were increasingly common on social media and asked legal authorities to intervene.

In October social media users and media outlets shared photographs of anti-Christian and anti-Semitic posters hung at municipal bus stops in the central Anatolian town of Konya by the local branches of the Anatolian Youth Association and National Youth Foundation. The posters cited a Quranic verse that appeared to advise Muslims not to befriend Christians and Jews. The images also included a crucifix and Star of David with what appeared to be droplets of blood. Social media users from all three faiths criticized the posters as insulting to religious minorities, misrepresenting the message of the Quran, and undermining the dignity of the nation. The private advertising company leasing the billboards said the associations changed the content of the posters before printing them. It replaced the images with Turkish flags shortly after the concerns appeared on social media. The Anatolian Youth Association described the situation as a misunderstanding and said it was investigating the incident. In December the local prosecutor’s office in Konya said in a statement it would not pursue prosecution in the case because the act in question did not present “a clear and eminent threat to the public safety.”

In June at a memorial service in Istanbul for former Egyptian president Mohamed Morsi, the crowd chanted anti-Semitic slogans. President Erdogan attended the service.

Several Christian and Jewish places of worship experienced acts of vandalism and received threats, according to local observers and the Freedom of Belief Initiative. In January three assailants reportedly threw a “sound” grenade at the door of the Mardin Protestant Church. The suspects were detained and released after making statements to police.

In February an unidentified person or persons sprayed graffiti on the doors and walls of the Surp Hreshdagabet Armenian Church in the Balat District, Istanbul that included derogatory messages. A representative of community foundations to the GDF, Moris Levi, said in a statement that police had opened an investigation and received security camera footage of the incident. HDP MP Garo Paylan condemned the attack. According to the community, the perpetrators had not been found by year’s end.

According to media reports, in March a person attempted to vandalize the Beth Israel Synagogue in Izmir with a Molotov cocktail. The synagogue was not damaged in the incident. Police arrested and charged the individual for attempting to damage a place of worship. He stated his intention was to “protest Israel,” according to multiple media reports. Representatives of the Jewish community expressed gratitude to the İzmir Security Directorate for what they said was its swift response and sensitivity to the community’s security needs.

In January a small group of protestors demanded the status of the Hagia Sophia change from a museum to a mosque following the social media posting of a woman dancing inside the structure. Police prevented the group from entering the structure, and museum officials said they would investigate the incident. The investigation continued at year’s end.

In February hundreds of persons gathered in front of the Hagia Sophia for Friday prayers in an event organized by the Platform on Unity in Idea and Struggle, which advocates for the Hagia Sophia’s conversion into a mosque.

Despite the law permitting teaching and spreading religious beliefs, church officials and rights groups indicated these types of activities were widely viewed with suspicion and occasionally led to societal stigmatization.

Muslim, Jewish, and Christian religious leaders again joined representatives from various municipalities in Istanbul and the minister of culture and tourism for a public interfaith iftar in May. Organized by the representative of community foundations to the GDF with the support of all religious minority communities and hosted this year by the Syriac Catholic community, the event was described by organizers as an opportunity for communities that have shared the same lands for thousands of years to share their tables as friends.

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement

The Ambassador, Charge d’Affaires, other embassy and consulate officials, and visiting U.S. officials regularly engaged with government officials throughout the year, including at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Diyanet, and GDF. They underscored the importance of religious freedom, interfaith tolerance, and condemning hateful or discriminatory language directed at any religious groups.

U.S. officials also provided overviews of the 2018 International Religious Freedom report in private meetings with government officials. They offered to hear from government representatives specific claims of potential religious freedom issues raised by local religious communities and how best to collaborate between the governments of the two countries to protect and respect religious freedom.

U.S. government officials urged the government to implement reforms aimed at lifting restrictions on religious groups, raised the issue of property restitution and restoration, and discussed specific cases of religious discrimination.

Senior U.S. government officials continued to publicly, and privately with government officials, express their understanding of the Hagia Sophia as a site of extraordinary significance, and to support its preservation in a manner that respects its complex multireligious history. They underscored the importance of the issue with government officials and emphasized that the Hagia Sophia is a symbol of peaceful coexistence, meaningful dialogue, and respect among religions. Embassy staff continued to press for the restitution of church properties expropriated in Diyarbakir and Mardin.

The Secretary of State and other senior U.S. government officials continued to urge government officials to reopen the Greek Orthodox seminary in Halki and allow all religious communities to train clergy in the country. In May the Charge d’Affaires and the Istanbul Consul General visited Halki to demonstrate ongoing interest in the reopening of the seminary. In October staff of the consulate general in Istanbul joined representatives from 24 other missions and the foreign ministry to visit Halki with Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I. In April the Charge d’Affaires attended Easter services at the Greek Orthodox Cathedral of St. George to show support for religious minorities.

In March embassy officials met with the leaders of a recently renovated Greek Orthodox Church in Antalya to learn more about the community’s concerns and aspirations for its growing congregation, and to express the U.S. government’s interest in promoting religious freedom in the country.

In September the Principal Officer of the consulate in Adana attended the annual Mass at the historic Armenian Akdamar Church near Van in the east of the country, officiated by the acting Armenian patriarch, to emphasize U.S. government support for religious minorities in the country.

In April the Istanbul Consul General traveled to the city of Edirne to visit Muslim, Jewish, Christian, and Baha’i historic sites and demonstrate the U.S. government’s commitment to religious freedom. In May senior embassy officials hosted a Jewish community leader at the embassy to learn firsthand about the community’s views and concerns.

In January a senior embassy official attended a Holocaust Remembrance Day ceremony at Ankara University with senior host government officials and the leadership of the country’s Jewish community. Local media provided positive coverage of the event.

Senior U.S. embassy and consulate officials regularly engaged with a wide range of religious community leaders to hear and address their concerns, visit their places of worship, and promote interreligious dialogue. Officials from the embassy and consulates met with members of the Greek Orthodox, Jewish, Armenian Apostolic Orthodox Christian, Armenian Protestant, Armenian Catholic, Protestant, Alevi, Syriac Orthodox, Syriac Catholic, Roman Catholic, Chaldean, Church of Jesus Christ, and Baha’i Faith communities, among others, throughout the country. The embassy and consulates utilized Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram to emphasize the importance of the inclusion of religious minorities, including messages under hashtags such as #DiniOzgurluk (religious freedom) on designated days that recognized and underscored the U.S. government commitment to religious freedom and human rights.

International Religious Freedom Reports
Edit Your Custom Report

01 / Select A Year

02 / Select Sections

03 / Select Countries You can add more than one country or area.

U.S. Department of State

The Lessons of 1989: Freedom and Our Future