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 contravene the laws or rules of proper administration. The ombudsman makes recommendations to correct wrongdoings but cannot enforce them.
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 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 (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 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 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.
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 ($6,900), 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.
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, and the government again removed temporary bathrooms installed during Ramadan at Dhali Mosque. Although the government approved architectural plans for ablution and bathroom facilities at Dhali Mosque in 2016, construction had still not begun by year’s end. The Ministry of Interior (MOI) stated the local imam did not approve the plans and instead requested that ablution facilitates be built at his nearby house. A survey found structural problems in the house that prevented construction, and the MOI continued to evaluate alternatives at year’s end. The Ministry of Communications and Works’ Department of Antiquities reported it provided bathroom facilities at a distance of approximately 330 feet from Bayraktar Mosque. Authorities said the mosque was part of the medieval Venetian wall of the city, making it impossible to install sewage pipes.
Authorities closed Kato Paphos Mosque, which was the only functioning mosque in the city of Paphos and served approximately 1,500 Muslims, from October 2017 to May due to a construction project to upgrade the surrounding area. According to the ombudsman, the Department of Antiquities rejected the local Muslim community’s request to use the nearby Grand Mosque as an alternative because it lacked hygiene facilities and because of scheduled restoration works. After examining a complaint submitted by the executive coordinator of the RTCYPP, the ombudsman on May 11 called on the minister of interior, the mayor of Paphos, and the director of the Department of Antiquities to take immediate action to provide a suitable place of worship. Authorities reopened the mosque on May 15 to allow the community to use the mosque for Ramadan, and it remained open during the rest of the year.
The only one of the eight functioning mosques not open for all five daily prayers was 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; the imam said the authorities routinely granted permission.
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. 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 required to submit requests to UNFICYP, which then facilitated the approval process with the government. On June 20, 884 pilgrims crossed into the government-controlled area for a pilgrimage to Hala Sultan Tekke on Eid al-Fitr. On August 28, police escorted approximately 300 Turkish Cypriots, Turks, and other foreign nationals to Hala Sultan Tekke for prayers on Eid al-Adha. On November 20, 655 pilgrims crossed into the government-controlled area to attend prayers at Hala Sultan Tekke on Mawlid al-Nabi.
On June 11, in response to a request facilitated by the RTCYPP, the government allowed Mufti of Cyprus Atalay to attend an iftar with the Muslim community at Kato Paphos Mosque. It marked the first time in more than four decades the mufti visited and prayed with the Muslim community of Paphos during Ramadan.
A representative of the Buddhist community reported it no longer encountered difficulties operating a place of worship in an apartment in Nicosia. A 2015 criminal case against a Buddhist priest for unlicensed alterations and additions to a building in Pera that the community had previously used as a temple was resolved during the year; the priest complied with the building regulations and in June paid three fines of 250 euros ($290) each. A Buddhist community representative said two of the fines were for unlicensed alterations to the building made by the previous owner, a Cypriot national, who was never prosecuted.
Representatives of the Jewish community 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 raising the issue repeatedly with the relevant government authorities, the issue remained unresolved. Jewish representatives also said local Department of Veterinary Services officials initially prevented them from performing religious animal slaughter, despite granting exemptions from the requirement to stun animals before slaughter in previous years. A Department of Veterinary Services official said the department no longer granted exemptions for religious slaughter. A Jewish community representative said, after engaging local government officials, the officials ultimately allowed the community to perform the slaughter without prior stunning. The Muslim community said it had not encountered problems in carrying out ritual slaughter.
Jewish representatives said the government had not responded to their long-standing request to grant the Chief Rabbinate of Cyprus the right to officiate documents such as marriage, death, and divorce certificates.
A Jehovah’s Witnesses representative said the community was not allowed to bury its dead in municipal cemeteries, which were often managed by local Greek Orthodox churches. The representative also said local police fined some of its members for “peddling without a license” for distributing free pamphlets in Ayia Napa. He said the community had been unsuccessful in resolving the issue with municipal authorities, and that he had written letters to the minister of interior, the chief of police, Ayia Napa municipality, and the ombudsman about the incidents. The MOI responded in December that, provided there was space available, municipalities were legally bound to provide burial space in municipal cemeteries regardless of the deceased person’s religion. The chief of police replied the Ayia Napa incidents were under the purview of municipal police, and Ayia Napa municipality had not responded by year’s end. The ombudsman was examining the case at year’s end.
The Cyprus Humanists Association stated the MOE and public schools took actions that discriminated against atheist students. In January the MOE posted a presentation on its official website advising rejection of atheism and describing atheists as materialistic and immoral. By April the MOE had removed the presentation from its website. The Cyprus Humanists Association also reported in December 2017 that a public primary school invited Greek Orthodox priests to hear confessions of students during school time. The association submitted a complaint to the ombudsman about the incidents, but there was no information available as to whether the ombudsman had examined the complaint.
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.