Executive Summary

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 buffer zone, or “green line,” 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).

IN THIS SECTION: REPUBLIC OF CYPRUS (BELOW) | AREA ADMINISTERED BY TURKISH CYPRIOTS


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 land Muslims have donated as a charitable endowment.  Authorities closed the only functioning mosque in Paphos from October 2017 to May due to construction in the area and denied the Muslim community’s request to use the Grand Mosque as an alternative.  The government granted Turkish Cypriots and foreigners in the area administered by Turkish Cypriots access to religious sites in the area it controls, including for three visits to Hala Sultan Tekke Mosque during Eid al-Fitr, Eid al-Adha, and Mawlid al-Nabi.  On June 11, the government allowed Mufti of Cyprus Talip Atalay to attend an iftar with the Muslim community at Kato Paphos Mosque, marking the first time in more than four decades the mufti visited and prayed with the Muslim community of Paphos during Ramadan.  A Jehovah’s Witnesses representative reported difficulties accessing municipal cemeteries and in distributing pamphlets in Ayia Napa.  The Cyprus Humanists Association said the Ministry of Education (MOE) and public schools discriminated against atheist students, and the MOE on its website advised students to reject atheism.

The nongovernmental organization (NGO) Caritas reported instances of physical attacks and threats against Muslim students in Paphos.  The Jewish community reported incidents of anti-Semitic threats and verbal harassment.  Some religious minority groups reported pressure to engage in religious ceremonies of majority groups.  Greek Orthodox Christians reported they sometimes faced ostracism from that community if they converted to another religion.  Leaders of the main religious groups continued to meet and reaffirmed their commitment to promoting religious freedom across the island.

The U.S. Ambassador attended language classes for interfaith leaders coordinated by the Religious Track of the Cyprus Peace Process (RTCYPP), an initiative of the Swedish embassy that facilitates cooperation among religious leaders to advocate peace and access to and protection of religious sites and monuments.  The Ambassador discussed access to religious sites and interfaith dialogue with Church of Cyprus Archbishop Chrysostomos.  Embassy staff met with the government, NGOs, and religious leaders to discuss religious freedom, including access to religious sites island-wide and discrimination against minority religious groups.  Embassy officials encouraged continued dialogue among religious leaders and reciprocal visits to places of religious significance on both sides of the “green line.”

Section I. Religious Demography

The U.S. government estimates the total population of the island at 1.2 million (July 2018 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), and Armenian Orthodox (0.3 percent), with small populations of Jews, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and Baha’is.  Recent immigrants and migrant workers are predominantly Roman Catholic, Muslim, Hindu, and Buddhist.  The country’s chief rabbi estimates the number of Jews at 3,000, most of whom are foreign born.  A Jehovah’s Witnesses representative estimates the group has 2,600 members.

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 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.

Government Practices

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.

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.

Caritas reported three 10-year-old students in Paphos pushed a Muslim student of the same age off a veranda in January, resulting in injuries that required multiple hospital visits for treatment.  The victim’s mother filed a complaint with the local MOE office, which did not take any action.  The victim’s mother did not file a complaint with police.  According to Caritas, in December the Cypriot father of another student threatened the 14-year-old sister of the first victim and pushed her to the ground while on the school grounds.  The school manager refused to file a police complaint, saying the alleged perpetrator was dangerous, and advised the victim’s mother against filing a police report to avoid creating problems.  The victim’s mother reported the attack to police, who reportedly had not taken action by year’s end.  Caritas also said students discriminated against Muslim students, teasing and excluding girls who wore hijabs, calling them names, and pressuring them to eat pork.

Representatives of the Jewish community reported instances of anti-Semitic threats and harassment.  The Jewish community said that, on three occasions in August and October, Muslim men verbally abused members of the Jewish community in Larnaca with anti-Semitic slurs and death threats.  The victims had not filed complaints with police at year’s end.  The Jewish community also cited an incident in which an elementary school student, whose father is Palestinian, verbally harassed a Jewish student with anti-Semitic language in May.  The school principal reportedly spoke with the student, who apologized.

Members of minority religious groups continued to report societal pressures to participate in public religious ceremonies.  For example, children of various religious minorities said they faced social pressure to attend religious ceremonies at school.

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

During the year the Technical Committee on Cultural Heritage (TCCH), one of the bicommunal working groups set up as part of the UN-facilitated settlement negotiations process, completed the restoration of Camii-Kebir Mosque in Paphos.  The project was scheduled to be inaugurated in early 2019.  The TCCH restored religious sites for purposes of cultural preservation, and restored sites were not necessarily available for use by religious groups.  In November 2017, the TCCH completed the restoration of the mosques of Ayios Nicolaos (Aynikola) and Ayios Yiannis (Ayianni) in Paphos district.  Neither building functioned as an active mosque after the 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.  On June 19, the RTCYPP released a joint video statement featuring the country’s main religious leaders appealing for inclusion, understanding, and support for refugees and asylum seekers to mark World Refugee Day.  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 Latin Catholic communities continued; participants included priests, imams, nuns, and laypersons who worked for faith-based organizations.

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement

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.

The Ambassador discussed restrictions on access to religious sites and interfaith dialogue with Church of Cyprus Archbishop Chrysostomos.  In June the Ambassador met with interfaith leaders taking Greek and Turkish language classes organized by the RTCYPP and held at the Home for Cooperation in the buffer zone.Ambassador also met with the Swedish Ambassador to discuss ways of promoting religious freedom on the island and support the efforts of the RTCYPP to encourage cooperation among religious leaders.

Embassy staff continued to discuss religious freedom issues, including religious-based discrimination, with NGOs Caritas and Movement for Equality, Support, Anti-Racism.  They met with representatives of the Armenian Orthodox, Baha’i, Buddhist, Greek Orthodox, Jewish, Maronite, Roman Catholic, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and Muslim 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’ ongoing dialogue and encouraged the continuing reciprocal visits of Christian and Muslim leaders to places of worship on both sides of the “green line.”


IN THIS SECTION: REPUBLIC OF CYPRUS (ABOVE) | 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 long-standing U.S. policy.

2018 Report on International Religious Freedom: Cyprus
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