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Read a Section: Area Administered by Turkish Cypriots

Republic of Cyprus

The government of the Republic of Cyprus is the only internationally recognized government on the island, but since 1974 the northern third of Cyprus has been administered by Turkish Cypriots. This area 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 Türkiye (Turkey). A substantial number of Turkish troops remain on the island. A “Green Line,” or buffer zone (which is over 110 miles long and several miles wide in some areas) patrolled by the UN Peacekeeping Force in Cyprus (UNFICYP), separates the two sides. This report is divided into two parts: the Republic of Cyprus and the area administered by Turkish Cypriots.

Turkish Cypriots have administered the northern part of Cyprus since 1974 and proclaimed it the “Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus” (“TRNC”) in 1983. The United States does not recognize the “TRNC,” nor does any country other than Türkiye (Turkey). The TRNC “constitution” is the basis for the “laws” that govern the area administered by Turkish Cypriot authorities.

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 stipulates religious education may be conducted only under “state” supervision. Although the “constitution” grants the Vakf the right to regulate its internal affairs, it is subordinate to the “Prime Minister’s” office.

During the year, the “Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA)” stated it approved 107 out of 173 requests to hold Greek Cypriot religious services between January and December, compared with 37 of 66 requests in 2021. The “MFA” said, “60 of the requests that were submitted through the UN Peacekeeping Force in Cyprus (UNFICYP) and another five requests through other channels could not be facilitated as they fell outside the pre-determined criteria.” One request was withdrawn during the period. Turkish Cypriot “officials” reported they routinely denied requests from Greek Cypriot religious leaders who appeared in the media brandishing weapons or who have openly delivered public messages “full of hatred, intolerance, and enmity toward the [Turkish Cypriot] people.” They said they also denied some requests due to “unsafe physical and structural conditions” of the churches.

Turkish-Speaking Protestant Association (TSPA) representatives continued to report police surveillance of their activities. According to Greek Orthodox representatives, Turkish Cypriot police monitored their church services. They reported that plainclothes police officers present during worship services checked priests’ identification and monitored the congregation.

The TSPA said Turkish Cypriots who converted from Islam to other faiths often experienced societal pressure, abuse, insult, public criticism, and workplace discrimination. The former Mufti of Cyprus, Talip Atalay, and the then Archbishop of the Church of Cyprus, Chrysostomos II, frequently engaged in events and discussion with religious leaders across the island. Local sources reported that the Mufti of Cyprus, Ahmet Ünsal, who assumed the role in July 2021, was not open to engagement and cooperation, and, in accord with his stated intention, has not participated in TRCYPP activities.

The Ambassador and embassy officials continued engagement with the office of the Mufti of Cyprus, who was also head of the “Religious Affairs Department,” to discuss cooperation among religious leaders and encourage access to religious sites. Embassy officials met with representatives of the “MFA” and the Vakf to discuss more streamlined access to religious sites. Embassy officials continued to meet with leaders from the Sunni, Alevi, Armenian Orthodox, Greek Orthodox, Maronite, Roman Catholic, and Protestant communities to discuss access to religious sites and instances of religious-based discrimination. The Ambassador hosted an iftar in April for prominent members of the Turkish Cypriot community that highlighted the U.S. commitment to advancing freedom of religion and interfaith dialogue.

According to a statement from the “Statistics Council,” as of October 2022, the population of the area administered by Turkish Cypriots is estimated to be 391,000.  There is no data on religious affiliation.  Sociologists estimate as much as 97 percent of the population is Sunni Muslim.  The Alevi Culture Association estimates there are approximately 10,000 Alevis, most of whom are immigrants, and their descendants of Turkish, Kurdish, and Arab origin.  The TSPA estimates there are 1,000 Turkish-speaking Protestants.  The government of the Republic of Cyprus estimates that 290 members of the Greek Orthodox Church of Cyprus and 48 Maronite Catholics reside in the area administered by Turkish Cypriots.  According to sociologists, other groups include the Russian Orthodox, Anglican, Baha’i, Jewish, and Jehovah’s Witness communities.  According to “Ministry of Education (MOE)” statistics for the 2022-23 academic year, there were approximately 94,000 foreign students from more than 140 countries enrolled at universities in the area administered by Turkish Cypriots.  Of these, 50 percent were Muslims with Turkish citizenship.

Legal Framework

The Turkish Cypriot “constitution” states the area 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, insulting others’ religious beliefs, and compelling individuals to disclose their religious beliefs. It stipulates religious education requires “state” approval and may only be conducted under “state” supervision, but the “law” allows summer religious knowledge courses to be taught in mosques without “MOE” approval. The “law” does not explicitly 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.

According to the “constitution,” 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. The “constitution” does not explicitly recognize religious groups other than the Vakf. According to the “constitution,” 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. The agreement states 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, without advance notification or permission, conduct liturgies led by two priests designated by the Greek Orthodox Church of Cyprus at three designated functional churches on the Karpas Peninsula: Agia Triada Church in Agia Triada/Sipahi, Agia Triada Church in Rizokarpaso/Dipkarpaz, and Agios Synesios Church in Rizokarpaso/Dipkarpaz. According to the “MFA,” Greek Orthodox priests who come from government-controlled area to attend religious services at these churches must provide advance notification or apply for permission.

According to the “MFA,” Maronite Catholic residents may hold liturgies or masses led by Maronite-designated clergy without seeking permission at three designated functional Maronite churches: Agios Georgios Church in Kormakitis/Korucam, Timios Stavros Church in Karpasia/Karpasa, and Panagia Church in Kampyli/Hisarkoy.

Greek Orthodox and Armenian Orthodox priests must submit applications to authorities for permission to hold religious services at churches or monasteries other than the six designated churches, including at restored religious heritage sites. Although the “MFA” reported 78 churches open for religious services in the area administrated by Turkish Cypriots, these churches were only available for religious services with prior approval.

The “MFA” reported it uses specific criteria to evaluate requests for Greek Cypriot religious services to be held at religious sites in Turkish Cypriot- administered areas. For an application to be considered, the day of the requested service must be a designated religious holiday (Christmas, Easter, or the church’s name day, sometimes referred to as its feast day). The church or monastery must be structurally sound and not located in a military zone, with exceptions for some Maronite churches. The building must not have a dual use, for example, as a museum, there should be no dispute from local Turkish Cypriot residents over use of the property, and Turkish Cypriot police must be available to provide security.

Permission is also necessary for priests other than those who are officially predesignated to conduct services. Specific permission is required for individuals who do not reside in the Turkish Cypriot-administered area, including members of the Greek Orthodox, Maronite Catholic, and Armenian Orthodox Churches, to participate. UNFICYP coordinates these applications, which religious groups must submit at least 10 days before the date of the requested service.

The “government”-appointed Mufti of Cyprus heads the “Religious Affairs Department” in the “Prime Minister’s Office,” which functions as a “civil authority” and represents Islam in the area administered by Turkish Cypriots. Whereas the Vakf manages Muslim-donated property as an endowment for charitable purposes, the “Religious Affairs Department” oversees how imams conduct prayers and approves the Friday sermon in mosques.

The “Offenses Against Religion” section in the “TRNC Criminal Code,” criminalizes (as a misdemeanor) acts by “any person who, with the intention of insulting the religion of any person, or knowing that any destruction, harm or defilement of any person will be an insult to their religion, destroys, damages or pollutes a place of worship or any property considered sacred by a certain group of people.”

Religious groups do not have to register with authorities as associations to assemble or worship, but only associations registered with the “MOI” have the right to engage in commercial activity and maintain bank accounts. Religious and nonreligious groups have the same registration process, and they must 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 cannot register as associations if the stated purpose of the association is to provide religious education to its members.

There is mandatory religious instruction in grades four through eight in all schools, public and private. These classes focus primarily on Sunni Islam but also include sessions on comparative religion. The “MOE” sets the curriculum, which is based on a textbook commissioned by the Ministry of Education in Turkey. Students under grade six who are non-Muslim are required to “listen” to religious instruction but are graded without examination. Students may opt out of mandatory religion courses in grades six through eight. At the high school level, religion classes are optional.

There are no provisions or “laws” allowing conscientious objection to mandatory military service, which requires a 12- to 15-month initial service period and one-day annual reserve duty until the age of 39. The penalty for refusing to complete mandatory military service is up to three years’ imprisonment, a fine of up to 10,800 Turkish lira ($580), or both.

“Government” Practices

The “MFA” reported that despite the rule requiring applications for Greek Cypriot religious services at least 10 days in advance, it granted two requests that were submitted seven days prior to the services. The UNFICYP office responsible for facilitating these requests said applicants for Greek Cypriot religious services often complained the “MFA” approved applications only a few days before the requested service, causing organizers to cancel due to the last-minute notice.

Greek Cypriot newspaper Alithia reported that Turkish Cypriot authorities rejected the Metropolis of Constantia and Famagusta’s direct request to the “MFA” to conduct church services, stating that the requests are normally submitted through the United Nations.

According to statistics reported by the “MFA,” authorities continued to grant access to Greek Orthodox places of worship. UNFICYP reported the “MFA” approved 49 of 107 requests it received to facilitate religious services at churches in the northern part of the island between August and December. In 2021, UNFICYP reported 15 approvals of 18 requests. The “MFA” reported it approved107 of 173 total requests (including both UNFICYP-facilitated requests and requests submitted directly to the “MFA”) to hold religious services, compared with 37 of 66 total requests in 2021. The “MFA” reported denying 65 requests because they could not be facilitated, as they fell outside the predetermined criteria. Applicants withdrew one request during the period.

Three Greek Orthodox churches – Apostolos Andreas, St. Barnabas, and St. Mamas – remained open for individual prayers throughout the year, but Turkish Cypriot authorities continued to require advance notification for religious services. While St. Mamas and St. Barnabas Churches functioned as museums and were only open during working hours, officials permitted individuals to pray at the churches during those hours.

In a March 23 trial, the Iskele District Court withdrew charges of illegally importing literature that was seized from a U.S. citizen pastor’s home. At year’s end, the pastor still faced charges in Famagusta District Court related to the importation of Christian literature confiscated from his business in 2021 as well as for providing unauthorized training in barista skills and wine appreciation. A hearing on the case was scheduled for April 2023.

On January 9, officials had informed the U.S. citizen pastor whose home and business police raided in January 2021 that his court hearing scheduled for the following day on charges of illegally importing Bibles and other religious literature would be postponed to February 16, giving no reason for the postponement. The pastor faced additional charges at another hearing scheduled for January 27 on charges of illegally importing Christian material and producing wine without a license. The “customs” department initially granted a license in 2019 to the pastor to operate a coffee shop located in the area administrated by Turkish Cypriots. Later in the year, municipal “authorities” revoked the license. In the January 2021 raid of the pastor’s home and business, police seized Bibles and Christian literature in various languages. Police also alleged the pastor’s business, including a cafe, operated and sold wine without a license. The Turkish Cypriot newspaper Kibris Postasi published an article January 2021 linking him to an American pastor imprisoned in Turkey for two years on charges of espionage. After the raid “police” detained the pastor for 11 hours then released him on a 160,000 Turkish lira ($8,600) bond and confiscated his passport. Authorities charged the pastor with illegally importing Christian materials, fined him 5,000 Turkish lira ($270), and required him to apply for court permission to travel.

A Greek Orthodox representative reported that 72 religious sites remained inaccessible due to their location within established Turkish military zones or in the UN-monitored Buffer Zone.

A Maronite community representative said the Turkish military continued to restrict access to the Church of Archangelos Michael in the village of Asomatos/Ozhan. Maronite representatives reported being required to submit (by the preceding Tuesday) a list of persons planning to attend Sunday services. The “MFA” said this was because the church is located in a military zone. The “MFA” clarified that for Maronite services, it only required advance notification, not a request for access, to hold Sunday services and reported that no worshipers were refused admittance during the year. According to the “MFA,” the Turkish military allowed Maronites to celebrate Mass in Ayia Marina in July but denied Maronites access to the Church of Marki near Kormakitis/Korucam. The “MFA” claimed the request was denied due to the church’s location in a military zone and that the physical and structural condition of the church rendered it unsafe to hold religious services.

Public employees complained to their union that Halil Talaykurt, “Chairman” of the “Prime Ministry Supervisory Board,” forcibly took them to mosques and religious lessons during working hours. The religious lessons included lectures by Mufti Ünsal which, according to media sources, included derogatory remarks about Christianity and Judaism. Opposition parties stated the practice was a violation of the secular nature of the “TRNC.” Talaykurt denied pressuring his staff to attend and asserted that he authorized administrative leave for employees who wanted to attend the lessons, as he would also have done for other professional development activities, such as language instruction.

Several local sources reported that unlike his predecessor, the Mufti of Cyprus, Ahmet Ünsal, who assumed the role in July 2021, was not open to interfaith engagement or bicommunal cooperation. They said he did not participate in interfaith dialogue with other religious leaders on the island or in the Religious Track of the Cyprus Peace Process, leading to concern among other religious leaders about the decline in interfaith dialogue on the island.

The rabbi presiding over the Jewish community in Turkish Cypriot-administered areas reported “officials” had established a small Jewish cemetery in the Turkish Cypriot-controlled areas. The cemetery was established in response to problems transporting deceased members of his congregation to Jewish cemeteries in the government-controlled area during the COVID-19 period.

According to Greek Orthodox representatives, “police” monitored their church services. They reported plainclothes “police officers” were present during services, checking priests’ identification and monitoring the congregation.

The leader of the Turkish Protestant Association indicated police or plainclothes officers monitored its activities, regularly visited churches used by the group, and asked its members questions about their activities and beliefs.

The TCCH reported that during the year it completed six projects to restore or preserve religious sites in the Turkish Cypriot administered areas and that it was supervising seven additional projects at religious sites in Turkish Cypriot-administered areas.

In July, the TCCH announced a contract had been signed for conservation work at the Church of Agios Synesios in Karpaz and that mobilization of the construction site had begun. Conservation work ended in December.

With the support of UNDP funding, the TCCH also continued its restoration work on the Greek Orthodox Apostolos Andreas Monastery on the Karpas Peninsula, the most popular destination in Turkish Cypriot-administered areas for Greek Orthodox pilgrims. The TCCH reported the next step would be to issue the tender for the restoration project’s second phase. The TCCH also reported that, due to global inflation and an increase in construction costs, it faced a funding shortfall for its restoration and conservation plan for sites throughout the island.

The newspaper Diyalog reported that the Greek Orthodox cemetery in the Turkish Cypriot-administered area, in Minarelikoy/Neo Khoria, was in ruins and that graves had collapsed. Local citizens said they were sad to see the cemetery in such a condition and were ready to provide funding to improve it.

According to local press reports and other local sources, the Turkish government provided significant support to Sunni Islamic activities in the area administered by Turkish Cypriots. According to the 2022 Turkey-“TRNC” economic protocol, “Religious services will be included in the main duty and control area of the ‘state,’ and the ‘Religious Affairs Department’ will be reorganized within the legal entity of the ‘state.’ Religious services will be carried out in a way that has the authority to supervise and control all religious activity.”

According to local press reports and local embassy sources, the Turkish government continued to provide funding support for Sunni Islamic education throughout the area administered by Turkish Cypriots. Some initiatives offered iPads and bicycles to youth as rewards for participating in Islamic education activities or programs. Local press reported the Turkish “embassy” distributed toys to children who participated in online religious courses and prayed at least twice a day at a mosque. Human rights activists called such programs an “imposition of religion” and a “manipulation of children.”

During the year, secular Turkish Cypriot groups and teachers’ unions continued to criticize a 2019 education protocol with Turkey that established a Turkish Anatolia Religious High School program in the Hala Sultan Religious High School, a public school. Critics said the protocol imposed Islam on secular Turkish Cypriots and brought an Islam-focused curricula to the school, disregarding the secularism of the Turkish Cypriot community and its education system. The Secondary Education Teachers Union reported that with the support of the “MOE,” school officials permitted 200 students to enroll in the prestigious high school without taking required entrance exams.

The Alevi Culture Association reported Alevi children continued to receive mandatory Sunni Islamic religious instruction at public and private schools and could not opt out.

During the year, the “Religious Affairs Department” continued to appoint and fund all 225 imams at the 210 Sunni mosques in Turkish Cypriot-administered areas.

Greek Orthodox religious groups continued to report Turkish Cypriot 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. The religious groups continued to ask for the return of the items to the Church of Cyprus.

Since May, the budget of the “Religious Affairs Department” increased from 52,534,000 Turkish lira ($2.8 million) to 102,220,320 Turkish lira ($5.4 million).

Because religion and ethnicity often overlap, it was difficult to categorize many incidents as being solely based on religious identity.

During the year, advocacy by the Rabbi presiding over Jewish community members in the Turkish Cypriot areas of the island resulted in a local farmer facilitating kosher slaughter of chickens.

Officials did not allow the Rabbi presiding over the Jewish community in Turkish Cypriot-administered areas to enter the island via the Larnaca Airport, as stipulated by a December 2021 notice furnished to him.  The Rabbi indicated the prohibition to entry via the Republic of Cyprus was a continued inconvenience to travel and access to services only available in the government-administered areas.

The embassy promoted religious freedom on social media and met with representatives of the “MFA” and the Vakf to discuss unrestricted access to religious sites.  Embassy officials continued to meet with leaders from the Sunni, Alevi, Armenian Orthodox, Greek Orthodox, Maronite, Roman Catholic, and Protestant communities to discuss access to religious sites and instances of religious-based discrimination.

Embassy officials continued to engage with the office of the Mufti of Cyprus, who also heads the “Religious Affairs Department,” to discuss cooperation among religious leaders and access to religious sites.  On October 19, the Ambassador met the Head of Religious Affairs and Mufti of Cyprus, Ahmet Ünsal, to reiterate U.S. support for religious freedom, encourage Ünsal’s participation in RTCYPP activities, and stress the importance of interfaith cooperation for the Cyprus peace process and building trust between the Greek Cypriot and Turkish Cypriot communities.

In April, the Ambassador hosted an iftar for prominent members of the Turkish Cypriot community.  The event brought together a diverse set of Turkish Cypriot religious and political leaders, many of whom hold different views on interfaith and bicommunal cooperation and the role of Islam in society.

All references to names of places and institutions within this report are for reference purposes only.  They should not be interpreted as implying or indicating any political recognition or change in longstanding U.S. policy in Cyprus.

Cyprus: Area Administered by Turkish Cypriots
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