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 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 for the physical maintenance of mosques in government-controlled areas.
In addition to 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 government has formal processes by which religious groups may apply to use restored religious heritage sites for religious purposes.
According to a public school regulation, students are not allowed to cover their heads in school; however, the regulation explicitly states that the regulation should be implemented without discriminating against a student’s religion, race, color, gender, or any political or other convictions of the student or the parents.
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 Ministry of Education (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.
The ombudsman is an independent state institution responsible for protecting citizens’ rights and human rights in general. The ombudsman may 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.
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 ($6,700), 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.
On September 6, local press reported Apostolos Varnavas Lyceum Headmaster Loizos Sepos instructed a Muslim student wearing a headscarf to leave the school and only return after removing it. The headmaster subsequently told the student’s father that MOE regulations did not allow students to cover their heads, according to press reports. Then minister of education Champiaouris ordered an investigation of the incident, which was concluded by September 18. The MOE did not publicize the results of the investigation and announced on September 18 it would handle the issues arising from the investigation in accordance with the law. The minister met with the student, her father, and the headmaster on September 7. In response to continued criticism from students of the school, the MOE announced on September 8 it would transfer the headmaster to the State Institutes of Further Education.
In August the Department of Antiquities closed the Limassol Great Mosque for restoration without previously informing the Muslim community of the nature of or timeline for the restoration, according to Imam Shakir Alemdar, Representative of the Mufti in Cyprus. The representative sent a letter to the Ministry of Interior (MOI), which had not responded by year’s end.
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. The government installed temporary bathrooms at Bayraktar Mosque and Dhali Mosque during Ramadan. In 2018 the MOI determined ablution and bathroom facilities for Dhali Mosque could not be installed at the local imam’s house across the street from the mosque due to structural issues. During the year, the MOI said installing facilities remained difficult due to limited space near the mosque; however, it said it planned to identify a suitable location and develop new plans.
The Department of Antiquities of the Ministry of Communications and Works provided bathroom facilities approximately 330 feet from Bayraktar Mosque. In October the Department of Antiquities said it was studying the placement of ablution facilities near Bayraktar Mosque. It said any new additions must be carefully placed because the mosque was part of the medieval Venetian wall of the city, an officially recognized ancient monument.
In October the imam of Hala Sultan Tekke Mosque said Department of Antiquities security guards stationed at the complex refused to let some non-Muslim tourists attend Friday prayers, despite the imam having invited them to attend. He also said visiting Department of Antiquities staff refused to wear appropriate clothing when entering the complex and security guards sometimes allowed visitors to enter the mosque wearing shoes. He said he spoke with the Head of the Antiquities Department but did not reach agreement on these issues by year’s end.
According to the RTCYPP, the Muslim community, Republic of Cyprus authorities, local press, and the UNFICYP, 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 Mosque 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 still required to submit requests to UNFICYP, which then facilitated the approval process with the government.
According to the RTCYPP and local press, on June 6, 600 pilgrims, primarily of Turkish origin, crossed from the area under Turkish Cypriot administration to attend a special service led by Mufti of Cyprus Talip Atalay at Hala Sultan Tekke Mosque for Eid al-Fitr (compared with 884 in 2018). On August 13, police again escorted approximately 305 Turkish Cypriots, Turks, and other foreign nationals to Hala Sultan Tekke for prayers on Eid al-Adha (compared to 300 in 2018). On November 11, 415 pilgrims crossed into the government-controlled area to attend prayers at Hala Sultan Tekke on Mawlid al-Nabi (compared to 655 in 2018). A Muslim community representative said the government did not impose any new restrictions on those who could cross for the pilgrimages.
On January 25, UNFICYP facilitated the visit of 28 Turkish Cypriots to Deneia village inside the buffer zone for the first prayer service at Deneia Mosque since 1963. After the service, Deneia community leader Christakis Panayiotou held a welcome reception for the Turkish Cypriots.
Representatives of the Jewish community again 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 continuing to raise the issue with government authorities, it remained unresolved.
Jewish representatives said local Department of Veterinary Services officials continued to deny exemptions from the requirement to stun animals before slaughter, despite granting exemptions in previous years. A Department of Veterinary Services official said the department no longer granted exemptions for religious slaughter. The Jewish community reported they were able to import kosher meat from other European Union (EU) countries at a significantly higher cost than if it were locally available.
Jewish representatives said the government continued not to respond to their long-standing request to grant the Chief Rabbinate of Cyprus the right to officiate (sign as an authorized individual) documents, including marriage, death, and divorce certificates.
A Jehovah’s Witnesses representative said the Jehovah’s Witnesses were not allowed to bury their adherents in some municipal cemeteries, which were often managed by local Greek Orthodox churches. After the community wrote a letter to the Ministry of Interior, Larnaca Municipality responded it had designated a place within the municipal cemetery for non-Greek Orthodox groups to bury their followers.
Representative of the Mufti of Cyprus Imam Alemdar said the Larnaca Turkish cemetery was completely full. He sent a letter to the MOI requesting that a Vakf property near Hala Sultan Tekke Mosque be made available as a cemetery. The MOI had not responded by year’s end.
In June the Cyprus Humanists Association said a school in Famagusta District presented a student with an award donated by a local business that was conditional on the student being an Orthodox Christian. The association said public schools previously presented similar awards conditional on the students being Greek Orthodox. It called on the Ministry of Education, the ombudsman, and Commissioner for the Rights of the Child Leda Koursoumba to prevent discrimination and maintain the secular character of public schools. The commissioner’s office said as of year’s end it had not received any formal complaints.
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.