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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 Turkish Cypriot “constitution” refers to the “state” as secular and provides for freedom of religious faith and worship consistent with public order and morals. It prohibits forced participation in worship and religious services and states religious education may be conducted only under “state” supervision. It grants the Islamic Vakf, which manages land Muslims have donated as a charitable endowment and sites of worship, the exclusive right to regulate its internal affairs. Turkish Cypriot authorities continued to restrict access to religious sites. UNFICYP reported that of 112 requests it received to facilitate religious services at churches in the northern part of the island during the year, the “TRNC Ministry of Foreign Affairs” (“MFA”) approved approximately 67. The “MFA” reported that, of 133 total requests (including both UNFICYP-facilitated and non-UNFICYP-facilitated requests) to hold religious services during the year, it approved 83. Alevi Muslims said they lacked places to worship and funding to construct them and that authorities treated them and other religious minorities unequally. In May the “ombudsman” stated the “Ministry of Education” (“MOE”) was violating freedom of religion by imposing mandatory religion courses based on Sunni Islam at schools, without presenting alternatives to non-Sunnis. Some minority religious groups continued to report police surveillance and restrictions of their activities.

The Turkish-Speaking Protestant Association (TSPA) continued to report societal discrimination toward Protestants, and some minority religious groups said Turkish Cypriots who converted to other faiths, particularly Christianity, faced criticism. A pastor of a church whose members were African students reported difficulties in securing a place of worship. The TCCH reported it had completed restoration of eight religious sites and was restoring another seven. The TCCH also reported completing five small cultural heritage activities, including religious sites, and completing project designs for another two sites. Religious leaders such as the mufti and the archbishop continued to promote religious dialogue by meeting and arranging visits to places of worship across the “green line.”

U.S. embassy officials met with Turkish Cypriot representatives to discuss access to religious sites and the ability to hold religious services at the sites without restrictions. Embassy officials continued to meet with leaders from different religious groups to discuss freedom of worship and access to religious sites.

According to 2011 census information from the Turkish Cypriot authorities, 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, of which 500 are members of the Naqshbandi Sufi order. Religious groups report an estimated 10,000 migrant workers of Turkish, Kurdish, and Arab origin are Alevi Muslims. According to sociologists, other small groups include approximately 330 members of the Church of Cyprus, 200 members of the Russian Orthodox Church, 150 Bahais, 150 Maronite Catholics, 180 Anglicans, 150 Jews, 300 Turkish-speaking Protestants, and 40 Jehovah’s Witnesses. According to “MOE” statistics for the 2016-17 academic year, there were 79,686 foreign students enrolled at universities in the area administered by the Turkish Cypriots. Of these, 50,650 were predominantly Muslim Turks and 29,036 were foreign students, many of them Christian and Muslim, from more than 100 different countries.

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 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 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. Maronite residents may hold liturgies or masses at four designated functional Maronite churches by Maronite-designated clergy without seeking permission. These 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 some 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 deliver 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 “MOE” chooses the curriculum, which is based on a textbook commissioned by the Ministry of Education in Turkey. Schools or teachers may excuse non-Muslim students from attending the course or taking the mandatory exam at the end of the semester on an individual basis 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 conscientious objection to mandatory military service, which includes a 12-15-month initial service requirement and a one-day annual reserve duty.

“Government” Practices

Authorities continued to restrict access to Greek Orthodox, Maronite Catholic, and Armenian Orthodox places of worship, and the “MFA” continued to state Greek Cypriots were abusing the right to religious freedom and politicizing the situation. Apostolos Andreas, St. Barnabas, and St. Mamas Churches remained open for religious services throughout the year. Apostolos Andreas Monastery was open for prayer but still required special permission to celebrate liturgy.

Authorities continued restrictions on regular religious services in certain other churches. UNFICYP reported, of 112 requests it received to facilitate religious services at churches in the northern part of the island during the year, the “MFA” approved approximately 67, compared with 139 requests and 84 approvals in 2016. The “MFA” reported that, of 133 requests (including both UNFICYP-facilitated and non-UNFICYP-facilitated requests) to hold religious services during the year, it approved 83, compared with 163 requests and 109 approvals in 2016.

In April the “MFA” again did not allow Good Friday church services to take place at the St. George Exorinos Church in Famagusta.

Turkish Cypriot civil society organizations criticized authorities for not allowing Greek Cypriots to perform church services and urged greater access to religious sites.

In response to a complaint from an Alevi Muslim association that religion courses ignored their needs, the “ombudsman” published a report in May stating the “MOE” only offered Sunni Islam-based academic religion courses in schools and that the policy ran contrary to basic rights of equality, faith, and freedom of religion, as stated in the “TRNC constitution.” It advised the “MOE” to make religion courses optional and more inclusive. In a joint press conference, the Pir Sultan Abdal Association, an Alevi Muslim association, the Primary Education Teachers’ Union, and the Secondary Education Teachers’ Union also stated they were against mandatory religion courses in schools.

Some Christians, as well as Alevis, stated the mandatory religion classes in schools were overly focused on Sunni Islam, and they expressed concerns that their children had no formal recourse to opt out of the classes. Alevis reported the education system discriminated against them. For example, one Alevi representative reported all students at the Hala Sultan Religious High School, which offered additional classes in Sunni Islam, received scholarships, but students at other schools were not all eligible for scholarships.

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.

On July 11, police in Turkey released “Director of the Religious Affairs Department” and Mufti Talip Atalay after four days of interrogation. “Acting Director of Religious Affairs” Fahrettin Ogdu told the press Atalay was not detained due to “Fethullah Gulen Terrorist Organization”-related affiliations, but rather because of unfounded accusations made by the “MFA” in an attempt to punish Atalay for his participation in the Religious Track dialogue with other religious leaders.

In August local newspapers reported the “MFA” did not grant permission for Greek Cypriots to conduct a religious ceremony on September 1-3 at St. Mamas Church to celebrate the saint’s name day. The “MFA” stated that due to security concerns and the overlap with Muslim holiday Kurban Bayram in the area administered by the Turkish Cypriots, it suggested postponing the religious ceremony one week. Main opposition Republican Turkish Party issued a written statement criticizing the “MFA” for preventing Greek Cypriots from holding Mass at St. Mamas, citing annual celebrations there since 2003. The Greek Cypriots declined to hold the religious ceremony a week later.

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.

The TSPA again reported some of its members were frightened to attend religious services due to police pressure; TSPA representatives visited homes instead.

According to a Greek Orthodox official, police were instructing Greek Orthodox priests to limit the length of services, and there were instances when police intervened during the service to tell the priest to expedite it.

Heavy police escorts continued to accompany visiting Greek Orthodox worshippers. Turkish Cypriot authorities said the escorts were to provide security; Greek Orthodox officials said they were for surveillance.

The “Religious Affairs Department” staffed 192 mosques, all Sunni, with 225 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 continued to state they lacked places of worship and funding to construct such facilities. Alevi Muslims said 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 [sic] “state”-funded mosques for Sunnis, but only one cemevi (place of worship) for Alevis, which had been under construction for several years and still not been completed. Consequently, Alevis had to worship at the unfinished cemevi or at some other location. Turkish Cypriot authorities earmarked three million Turkish liras ($792,000) in the “state” budget in 2016 for the completion of the cemevi but had not yet disbursed the funds. The tender process to complete construction of the cemevi was expected to begin the first half of 2018.

A representative of the Greek Orthodox Church again stated that some religious sites, to which Church officials had little or no access, were damaged or close to collapse due to decades of neglect. The representative did not cite specific examples.

Greek Orthodox religious groups continued to complain that 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 August Turkish Cypriot local authorities cancelled a TSPA-organized theatrical performance, even though the authorities had previously issued all necessary permits. The TSPA stated it believed local authorities, who reportedly did not provide a justification, cancelled the event because they deemed the performance Christian propaganda.

The TSPA also reported Turkish Cypriot authorities had prevented it from opening an office in Famagusta for the previous two years.

The TSPA said the police paid monthly visits to the association to check on the group and monitor its activities.

The TSPA reported it sent a letter to “President” Mustafa Akinci in September requesting the abolishment of mandatory religion courses in schools, a place to worship, and an opportunity to broadcast Christmas or Easter programming on a “state” television channel. By year’s end, the president had not responded, according to the TSPA.

The TSPA continued to report societal discrimination within the Turkish Cypriot community toward Protestants. The TSPA reported that, after previously agreeing to rent the group an assembly room for a Christmas party and play planned for December 24, a local school principal canceled the event on December 19. According to the TSPA, the school principal succumbed to pressure from nationalists who disapproved of the religious celebration. Despite appeals, the “MOE” did not intervene on the association’s behalf.

The TCCH reported it had completed restoration of eight religious sites and was restoring another seven. The TCCH also reported completing five small cultural heritage activities, including religious sites, and completing project designs for another two sites. The TCCH and the UN Development Program Partnership for the Future continued restoration work at the Greek Orthodox Apostolos Andreas Monastery in the Karpas Peninsula, a popular destination for pilgrims. The second phase of the project, including the restoration of the small chapel, surrounding buildings, and environmental landscaping, was expected to begin during the first half of 2018.

A pastor of a church, whose members were African students studying in universities in the area administered by Turkish Cypriots, reported difficulties in securing a place of worship. The pastor said local companies rejected their requests to rent halls for religious ceremonies and required payment of an entire year’s rent up front. They reported Near East University in the north had a mosque on campus for Muslims but did not have a chapel or church for Christians.

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,” such as Hala Sultan in the Republic of Cyprus and St. Barnabas in the “TRNC.”

U.S. embassy representatives continued to meet with Turkish Cypriot authorities at the “Presidency” and the “MFA” to discuss access to religious sites and the ability to hold religious services at sites without restrictions.

Embassy officials also discussed issues pertaining to religious freedom, including access to sites of worship and 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.

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 long-standing U.S. policy.


U.S. Department of State

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