Executive Summary


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

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 land Muslims have donated as an endowment for charitable purposes as well as sites of worship. The government granted Turkish Cypriots access to religious sites in the area it controls, including for visits by approximately 2,650 Turkish Cypriots and foreign nationals to Hala Sultan Tekke Mosque on three occasions. Seven of the eight functioning mosques, with the exception of Hala Sultan Tekke, in the government-controlled area were open for all five daily prayers, and six had the necessary facilities for ablutions. Despite long-standing requests, the government did not grant permission to the Muslim community to make improvements at mosques. A representative of the Buddhist community reported authorities raised obstacles to the operation of a temple in a village outside of Nicosia and forced the community to relocate the temple. In July the government removed a requirement to designate a person’s religion on civil marriage applications and certificates. The ombudsman’s office reported it was investigating new complaints regarding Ministry of Education (MOE) regulations for exempting students from religious instruction. The government required those who objected to military service on religious grounds to perform alternate service for longer periods.

The Jewish community reported incidents of assault, verbal harassment, and vandalism. Some religious minority groups reported pressure to engage in religious ceremonies of majority groups. Members of the Greek Orthodox majority reported they sometimes faced social ostracism from the Greek Orthodox community if they converted to another religion, such as Islam. A hotel reportedly refused to hire Muslim women for a cleaning job because they wore a hijab. In June a bicommunal working group set up as part of the UN-facilitated settlement talks completed the restoration of Koprulu Mosque in Limassol and Mathiatis Mosque in Nicosia district, and in October the Department of Antiquities completed the restoration of Arnavut Mosque in Limassol. The United Nations introduced religious groups and civil society organizations to its “Faith for Rights” initiative, which aimed to strengthen and deepen the connections between religious groups and human rights. The religious and civil society groups reportedly received the initiative positively and discussed ways to engage the public in a dialogue on protecting human rights to promote freedom of religion. Leaders of the main religious groups on the island continued to meet and reaffirmed their commitment to the promotion of religious freedom across the island. In October the Office of the Religious Track of the Cyprus Peace Process (RTCYPP) launched a pilot program offering Greek and Turkish language classes for priests, imams, nuns, and laypersons who worked for faith-based organizations.

U.S. embassy staff met with the government, nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), and religious leaders to discuss religious freedom issues, including access to religious sites island-wide and discriminatory treatment of minority religious groups. Embassy officials encouraged religious leaders to continue their dialogue and hold reciprocal visits to places of religious significance on either side of the “green line.”

The U.S. government estimates the total population of the island at 1.2 million (July 2017 estimate). According to the 2011 census, the population of the government-controlled area was 840,000. Of that total, 89.1 percent is Greek Orthodox Christian and 1.8 percent Muslim. Other religious groups include Roman Catholics (2.9 percent), Protestants (2 percent), Buddhists (1 percent), Maronite Catholics (0.5 percent), Armenian Orthodox (0.3 percent), with small populations of Jews, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and Bahais. Recent immigrants and migrant workers are predominantly Roman Catholic, Muslim, and Buddhist. The country’s chief rabbi estimates the number of Jews at approximately 3,000, most of whom are foreign born.

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 ombudsman is an independent state institution responsible for protecting citizens’ rights and human rights in general. The ombudsman has the power to investigate complaints made against any public service or official for actions that violate human rights, including freedom of religion, or actions exercised in contravention of the laws or the rules of proper administration. The ombudsman makes recommendations to correct wrongdoings but does not issue remedial steps.

The constitution states the Autocephalous Greek Orthodox Church of Cyprus (Church of Cyprus) has the exclusive right to regulate and administer the Church’s internal affairs and property in accordance with its canons and charter. By law, the Greek Orthodox 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 operates only in the area administered by Turkish Cypriots and does not administer mosques located in the government-controlled area. The Vakf acts as caretaker of religious properties in the Turkish Cypriot community. The government serves as caretaker and provides financial support to mosques in government-controlled areas.

Besides the Church of Cyprus and Islam, the constitution recognizes three other religious groups: Maronite Catholics, Armenian Orthodox, and “Latins” (Cypriot Roman Catholics). Their institutions are exempt from taxes and eligible for government subsidies for cultural and educational matters, depending on the needs of each group, for example, to cover costs to operate their own schools, for school fees for members of the groups attending private schools, or 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 Ministry of Commerce stating its purpose and provide the names of its directors. Religious groups registered as nonprofit organizations are treated the same as any other nonprofit organization; they are tax-exempt, must provide annual reports to the government, and are not eligible for government subsidies.

The government requires Greek Orthodox religious instruction and attendance at religious services before major holidays in public primary and secondary schools. The 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 any secondary school student 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.

Conscientious objectors on religious grounds are exempt from active military duty and from reservist service in the National Guard but must complete alternative service. There are two options available for conscientious objectors: unarmed military service, which is a maximum of 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 alternate service is up to three years’ imprisonment, a fine of up to 6,000 euros ($7,200), or both. Those who refuse both military and alternate 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

The Ministry of Interior (MOI), which has oversight of Turkish Cypriot properties in the government-controlled area, granted Turkish Cypriots access to religious sites in the area it controlled; however, Muslim community leaders stated the government continued to withhold full access to 19 mosques located on cultural heritage sites and deny them any administrative authority over the sites. The ministry made available six of those 19 mosques, as well as two other mosques not located on cultural heritage sites, for religious services. Of the eight functioning mosques, seven were available for all five daily prayers, and six had the necessary facilities for ablutions. Bayraktar and Dhali Mosques had no ablution facilities and no bathrooms, and the government removed temporary bathrooms installed during Ramadan at Dhali Mosque. The Ministry of Communications and Works’ Department of Antiquities reported it provided bathroom facilities at a distance of approximately 330 feet from Bayraktar Mosque, because the mosque was part of the medieval Venetian wall of the city, making it impossible to install sewage pipes. According to the MOI, in 2016, the government approved architectural plans for ablution and bathroom facilities at the Dhali Mosque; construction had not begun by year’s end. The government again failed to respond to a long-standing request by the Muslim community 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.

The only one of the eight functioning mosques not open for all five daily prayers was the Hala Sultan Tekke Mosque, the most important Islamic religious site in the country. The Department of Antiquities continued to keep it open during standard museum hours only, limiting access to the mosque to two of the five daily prayer times. The mosque’s imam had to ask permission of the MOI and Department of Antiquities to keep the mosque open after 5 p.m. in the autumn/winter months and after 7:30 p.m. in the spring/summer months. To cross the “green line” without identification checks to visit religious sites, Turkish Cypriots were required to submit their requests to UNFICYP, which then facilitated the approval process with the government.

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 to conduct prayers and services on special occasions. On June 27, approximately 1,000 pilgrims crossed into the government-controlled areas for a pilgrimage to Hala Sultan Tekke on Eid al-Fitr. On September 5, police escorted approximately 700 Turkish Cypriots, Turks, and other foreign nationals to Hala Sultan Tekke for prayers on Eid al-Adha. On November 29, 950 more crossed the “green line” for a pilgrimage at Hala Sultan Tekke on the occasion of the Mawlid-al Nabi.

A representative of the Buddhist community reported it continued to encounter difficulties operating a temple due to the rigorous enforcement of laws not typically observed for majority religious and other groups. Authorities prevented the community from operating a temple in Pera, a village outside of Nicosia where the community owned a house, arguing the community should have applied first for permission to change the building’s use from a residence to a temple. Local authorities instructed the Buddhist monks to remove the temple sign and move statues inside. The Buddhist community did not apply for the permit to change the use of the house to a temple and abandoned the effort in that village. The community instead rented an apartment in Nicosia to use as a temple. A representative of the Buddhist community reported the Municipality of Nicosia sent a letter to the owner of the newly rented apartment warning that it could not be used for large gatherings because of insufficient parking. To prevent further action by the municipality, members of the community avoided parking outside the building. A 2015 government criminal case against the Buddhist priest for unlicensed alterations and additions to the building in Pera remained open, and the priest had to appear in court on several occasions. The Buddhist community also reported delays in the renewal of the same religious leader’s temporary residence permit.

In response to a 2016 recommendation by the ombudsman, in July the government removed the requirement to designate a person’s religion on civil marriage certificates and on applications for civil marriage.

The ombudsman’s office reported it received new complaints regarding MOE regulations for exempting students from religious instruction and from participation in school-organized Greek Orthodox religious ceremonies. Most of the complaints concerned rejection of exemption applications because the applicants, who objected to the requirement to state their religion on their application, did not do so and the schools therefore denied the exemption. Another parent complained the school indiscreetly handled the student’s exemption from a religious ceremony and traumatized the child. The ombudsman was examining the complaints at year’s end.

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 gave a pledge of allegiance at a separate gathering.

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 incidents of assault and verbal harassment directed against individuals with yarmulkes and payot (hair side curls) but did not provide additional details. By year’s end, the police had not arrested any suspects for any of the incidents.

Members of minority religious groups continued to report societal pressures to participate in public religious ceremonies. For example, children of various religious minorities faced pressure to attend religious ceremonies at school, even though parents had the option to request they be exempted from participation. A representative of a religious group reported younger non-Greek Orthodox students did not wish to be excluded from school-organized Greek Orthodox Church ceremonies but said there were cases of Greek Orthodox clergy denying communion to those students in front of their classmates. Some Greek Orthodox adherents, who converted to other faiths, including Islam, reportedly hid their conversion from family and friends due to fear of social ostracism.

An NGO reported an employer at a hotel refused to hire migrant Muslim women for a cleaning job, stating their hijab would get in the way of doing their work.

In June the Technical Committee on Cultural Heritage (TCCH), one of the bicommunal working groups set up as part of the UN-facilitated settlement talks, completed the restoration of Koprulu Mosque in Limassol and Mathiatis Mosque in Nicosia district. The TCCH was restoring the mosques of Ayios Nicolaos (Aynikola) and Ayios Yiannis (Ayianni) in Paphos district. The Department of Antiquities assumed responsibility for restoring Arnavut Mosque in Limassol as an ancient monument and completed the work in October.

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. On September 28, the RTCYPP, an initiative of the embassy of Sweden that served as a platform for all religious leaders to discuss and promote religious freedom and contribute to efforts for reunification of the island, convened its third Round Table for Human Rights with religious leaders and civil society organizations. At that meeting, the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights introduced its “Faith for Rights” initiative, which aimed to provide space for a cross-disciplinary dialogue between religious groups concerning human rights, on the assumption that individual and communal expression of religion or belief could thrive and flourish in environments where human rights were protected. Attendees discussed ways to engage women, men, and children from across the island in implementing the initiative. On October 5, the RTCYPP launched a joint project of religious leaders to offer Greek and Turkish classes for members of the Greek Orthodox, Muslim, Armenian Orthodox, Maronite, and Latin Catholic faith communities. The pilot course, the first of its kind, included a group of 20 persons, including priests, imams, nuns, and laypersons who worked for faith-based organizations.

On November 16, in commemoration of the International Day of Tolerance, the religious leaders from the five principal religious groups – Archbishop Chrysostomos II of the Greek Orthodox Church of Cyprus; Talip Atalay, Mufti of Cyprus; Archbishop Doghramadjian of the Armenian Orthodox Church; Father Ibrahim Khita, representing the Maronite Catholic Church; and Father Jerzy Kraj, representing the Latin Catholic Church – jointly visited churches in the buffer zone and discussed the importance of religious freedom and the restoration of religious monuments. The leaders reaffirmed their commitment to dialogue and cooperation and reiterated their request to the political leadership to respect religious heritage and the right to worship.

U.S. 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 and the Office of the Ombudsman – to discuss religious freedom issues, such as access to religious sites on either side of the “green line” dividing the country.

Embassy staff continued to discuss religious freedom issues with the NGOs Movement for Equality, Support, Anti-Racism and Future Worlds Center. They met with representatives of the Armenian Orthodox, Bahai, Buddhist, Greek Orthodox, Jewish, Latin, Maronite, and Muslim communities to hear their concerns about access to and the condition of religious sites, and to inquire about incidents of discrimination or violence based on religion, societal attitudes toward minority religions, and obstacles to full enjoyment of religious freedom. For example, embassy officials frequently discussed with Greek Orthodox leaders their community’s concerns over the restrictions Turkish Cypriot authorities placed on the number and the duration of church ceremonies conducted in the area under Turkish Cypriot administration, as well as the heavy “police” monitoring of services, including occasional videotaping of the congregation. Embassy officials were supportive of religious leaders’ ongoing dialogue and encouraged the continuing reciprocal visits of Christian and Muslim leaders to places of worship on both sides of the “green line.”


2017 Report on International Religious Freedom: Cyprus
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