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 of individuals to disclose their religious beliefs. It stipulates religious education may only be conducted under “state” supervision. The “law” does not recognize any specific religion, and individuals cannot “exploit or abuse” religion to establish, even partially, a state based on religious precepts or for political or personal gain. The Vakf has the exclusive right to regulate and administer its internal affairs and property in accordance with Vakf laws and principles. Although the “constitution” states the Vakf shall be exempt from all taxation, its commercial operations are subject to applicable taxes. It also receives income from properties it manages. According to the “constitution,” the Turkish Cypriot authorities shall help the Vakf in the execution of Islamic religious services and in meeting the expenses of such services. No other religious organization is tax exempt or receives subsidies from the Turkish Cypriot authorities.
The 1975 Vienna III Agreement covers the treatment of Greek Cypriots and Maronite Catholics living in the area administered by Turkish Cypriots and the treatment of Turkish Cypriots living in the government-controlled area. Among other provisions, the agreement provides for facilities for religious worship for Greek Cypriots, stating they are free to stay and “will be given every help to lead a normal life, including facilities for education and for the practice of their religion.”
Turkish Cypriot “regulations” stipulate Greek Orthodox residents may conduct liturgies or masses led by three priests designated by the Orthodox Church at three designated functional churches in the Karpas Peninsula without seeking permission, and Maronite residents may hold liturgies or masses at four designated functional Maronite churches by Maronite-designated clergy without seeking permission. Religious groups must submit applications to the authorities for permission to hold religious services at churches or monasteries other than these seven designated churches. For the application to be considered, 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; and it must not have a dual use, for example, as a museum. Permission is also necessary for priests other than those officially predesignated to conduct services. Specific permission is required for services in which Cypriots who are not residents in the Turkish Cypriot-administered area, such as members of the Greek Orthodox, Maronite Catholic, and Armenian Orthodox Churches, participate. UNFICYP coordinates applications, which must be submitted 10 days before the date of the requested service.
The “Religious Affairs Department” represents Islam in the area administered by the Turkish Cypriots. Whereas the Vakf manages land that has been donated as an endowment by Muslims for charitable purposes, the “Religious Affairs Department” oversees how imams conduct prayers and give sermons in mosques.
Religious groups are not required to register with authorities as associations in order 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 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 compulsory instruction covering religion in grades four through eight in all schools. These classes focus primarily on Islam but also include sessions on comparative religion. The “Ministry of Education (MOE)” chooses the curriculum, which is based on a textbook commissioned by the “MOE” in Turkey. Non-Muslim students may be excused from attending on an individual basis by schools or teachers at the request of their guardians, but there is no formal process to request such an exemption. At the high school level, religion classes are optional.
There are no provisions or “laws” allowing Turkish Cypriots to conscientiously object to military service, which includes a one-day annual reserve duty requirement in addition to the 12-15-month initial service requirement.
Authorities continued to restrict access to Greek Orthodox, Maronite Catholic, and Armenian Orthodox places of worship. Turkish Cypriot authorities announced restrictions on church access, stating Greek Cypriots were abusing the right to religious freedom and politicizing the situation by increasing the number of requests for access to churches. One Greek Orthodox monastery was open for prayer but still required special permission for Mass.
Authorities continued restrictions on regular religious services in certain churches. UNFICYP reported that, of 163 requests received during the year, 109 were approved, compared with 128 requests and 88 approvals in 2015.
In May the “Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA)” announced new restrictions on religious services. Speaking to the press, “Foreign Minister” Tahsin Ertugruloglu said Apostolos Andreas, St. Barnabas, and St. Mamas churches would remain open for religious services throughout the year, but all other churches, except for St. George Exorinos, which would be the site of monthly religious services, would be available for religious services only once a year, either on their name day, or on Easter or Christmas. “Prime Minister” Huseyin Ozgurgun said his “government” would implement these new arrangements, because Greek Cypriots were exploiting religious freedom for political gains and some churches had been turned into “political symbols.” He said there had been a significant and deliberate increase in Greek Cypriot requests to hold religious services in the north, adding that the “government” had reviewed religious access procedures and formulated new technical criteria to deal with such requests. “MFA” Under Secretary Mustafa Lakadamyali told the press it was difficult for police to be present at different churches at the same time.
In May Republican Turkish Party “Member of Parliament” Erkut Sahali criticized the “MFA” for restricting religious services. Rejecting the “government’s” assertion that the new criteria were technical, Sahali said decisions to allow services should be standard and made consistently, blaming the “government” for using technicality as a guise when decisions were actually arbitrary. UN Special Advisor of the Secretary General on Cyprus Espen Barth Eide, mediator in ongoing reunification talks, said restrictions went against the bicommunal spirit and stated to the press that he had asked Turkish Cypriot leader Mustafa Akinci to rectify this new policy.
In June a UN Special Rapporteur on Freedom and Cultural Rights condemned Turkish Cypriot authorities’ restrictions on church services and expressed concern about the “possible violations of cultural rights and the rights of religious freedom” that could arise from these attempts.
“President” Mustafa Akinci reacted to the “MFA’s” once-a-year rule, saying he did not support restrictions on religious freedom. Turkish Cypriot NGOs and political parties also reacted to the “MFA’s” decision and said further restrictions would negatively influence the peace process. Republic of Cyprus and Greek Cypriot religious authorities referred to the restrictions as “a very negative development” and said freedom of faith was a basic right that should be respected and protected. The Religious Track Cyprus Peace Process, a peacebuilding initiative with religious leaders established under the auspices of the embassy of Sweden, said it would have been better to make such decisions only after discussing them with all stakeholders, including “government” officials, religious communities, and NGOs.
In June the press reported the “MFA” turned down the request of Greek Cypriots to hold a religious service at Saint George Exorinos Church in Famagusta on June 19 for Pentecost. The “MFA” said Pentecost was not a special day.
Between January and September the authorities allowed church services to take place, on a one-time basis, in five additional churches: Church of Timiou Prodromou in Argaki/ Akcay; Church of Neo Chorio in Neo Chorio/Minarelikoy; Church of Agia Eirini in Karavas/Alsancak; Church of St. Anne in Famagusta; and Church of Prophet Elias in Fylia/Serhatkoy. This brought to 39 the total number of churches at which authorities, beginning in 2013, have allowed services after a hiatus of more than 40 years.
In May the press reported approximately150 Greek Cypriots attended a prayer at the Agios Epihanios Church in the village of Yildirim, the second such prayer since 1974. The ceremony was supposed to have been held on May 12, but Turkish Cypriot authorities said permission was requested late by the Greek Cypriots and had to be held on May 21.
Some minority religious groups, including evangelical Christians, continued to report Turkish Cypriot authorities, including the police, monitored their activities. A Greek Orthodox priest reported heavy police presence during church services, including police inside the church videotaping services held by the enclaved Greek Cypriot community. In September the press reported heavy security measures at a religious ceremony at St. Mamas Church in Morphou.
The Turkish-Speaking Protestant Association (TSPA) reported some families of its members were frightened to attend religious services due to police pressure; therefore, TSPA representatives visited families instead. Heavy Police escorts continued to accompany visiting Greek Orthodox worshippers. According to press reports, Turkish Cypriot police individually searched the Greek Cypriots before entering the church. Turkish Cypriot representatives stated the purpose of the police presence was to provide security and protect religious icons and artifacts; however, religious groups said they viewed the police presence as intimidation and harassment.
The “Religious Affairs Department” staffed 190-200 mosques, all Sunni, with 360 imams. Members of the majority Sunni religious community continued to voice concerns the “government” was interfering with religious affairs by selecting imams.
Some non-Sunni Muslims reported they lacked places of worship and funding to construct such facilities. Alevi Muslims reported the authorities treated them and other minority religious groups unequally. The Alevi Culture Association continued to report that due to the lack of a house of worship, Alevis were required to conduct funerals inside mosques, contrary to their traditions. They also said they perceived favoritism in “state” funding toward the Sunni Muslim population through financing of mosque construction and support for administration of mosques. One Alevi representative reported there were 196 “state” funded mosques for Sunnis, but only one cemevi (place of worship) for Alevis, which had been under construction for several years.
A representative of the Greek Orthodox Church stated that some religious sites, to which they had little or no access, were damaged or close to collapse due to decades of neglect.
Greek Orthodox religious groups continued to complain that religious items, including icons, were held in storage rooms or displayed in museums against the wishes of the communities to whom they were sacred.
Turkish Cypriot religious groups continued to report Muslim parents seeking to send their children to religious summer courses faced strong public criticism from secular community members, particularly local “government” teachers.
Some Alevis and Christians stated the mandatory religious education in schools was overly focused on Sunni Islam, and their children had no formal recourse to opt out of the classes. Alevis reported the education system discriminated against Alevis and disregarded them in religious education. One Alevi representative reported 100 percent of scholarships were provided to students who would study at religious schools and at the Hala Sultan Religious High School, which promoted and taught only Sunni Islam.
Four Turkish Cypriots had ongoing cases at the “Constitutional Court” for not attending their one-day annual military reserve duty requirement. Two Turkish Cypriots declared they were conscientious objectors in the area administrated by Turkish Cypriots.
The TSPA reported local authorities removed the association’s sign installed outside its fellowship house in January, stating it was against the rules governing associations to put up such a sign. In September the TSPA also reported Turkish Cypriot police interrupted a congregation of 35 foreign worshippers who were staying at a private apartment building and asked for their names, passports, and identification information. The group refused and contacted the association’s lawyer. The TSPA said the police paid monthly visits to the association to check on the group and monitor its activities.
Abuses by Foreign Forces and Non-State Actors
According to a representative of the Maronite community, the Turkish military continued to grant Maronites limited access to their churches and villages located within Turkish military zones. The Turkish military allowed Maronites to celebrate Mass once a year in the Church of Ayia Marina. It denied Maronites access to the Church of Marki near Kormakitis/Kormacit. The Maronite Church of Archangelos Michael in the village of Asamatos/Ozhan was also located within a Turkish military zone but did not require permission to function regularly on Sundays.
A representative of the Greek Orthodox Church of Cyprus stated 50-55 religious sites remained inaccessible due to being located within Turkish military zones.