International Religious Freedom Report 2003
Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor
Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor

The Constitution of the Republic of Cyprus provides for freedom of religion, and the Government generally respects this right in practice.  The basic law in the Turkish Cypriot community also provides for freedom of religion, and the Turkish Cypriot authorities generally respect this right in practice.  However, the politically divisive environment on Cyprus occasionally affected aspects of religious freedom.


There was no change in the status of respect for religious freedom during the period covered by this report, and government policy continued to contribute to the generally free practice of religion.  Although reciprocal visits to religious sites were restricted during the period covered by this report, developments in April 2003 that facilitated crossings by both Greek Cypriots and Turkish Cypriots to visit religious sites located across the buffer zone led to significant improvements. 


The generally amicable relationship among religions in Cypriot society contributed to religious freedom; however, there were a few reports of vandalism of unused religious sites.


The U.S. Government discusses religious freedom issues with the authorities in the context of its overall dialog and policy of promoting human rights.


Section I.  Religious Demography


The country has a total area of 3,571 square miles, and its population is estimated at 793,000.  Prior to 1974, the country experienced a long period of intercommunal strife between its Greek and Turkish Cypriot communities.  In response, the U.N. Force in Cyprus (UNFICYP) began peacekeeping operations in 1964.  The island has been divided since the Turkish military intervention of 1974, following a coup d'etat directed from Greece; the southern part of the island is under the control of the Government of the Republic of Cyprus, while the northern part is ruled by a Turkish Cypriot administration.  In 1983 that administration proclaimed itself the "Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus" ("TRNC").  The "TRNC" is not recognized by the United States or any other country except Turkey.  A buffer zone patrolled by the UNFICYP separates the two parts.  Approximately 96 percent of the population in the government‑controlled area is Greek Orthodox.  Approximately 0.7 percent of the remaining population are Maronite, slightly less than 0.4 percent are Armenian Orthodox, 0.1 percent are Latin (Roman Catholic), and 3.2 percent belong to other groups; the latter category includes small groups of Cypriot Protestants and foreigners of various religious beliefs.


A 1998 opinion poll indicated that about 48 percent of Greek Cypriots attend church services regularly, while 49 percent attend only for major religious holidays and ceremonies such as weddings and funerals.  The remainder does not attend religious services at all.  Approximately 10 percent of the population in the north attend religious services regularly.


An estimated 99 percent of the Turkish Cypriot population is at least nominally Muslim.  There is a small Turkish Cypriot Baha'i community.  Most other non-Muslims in the north are foreigners from Western Europe who are frequently members of the Roman Catholic or Anglican Churches. 


There is some western Protestant missionary activity in the government-controlled area.


Section II.  Status of Religious Freedom


Legal/Policy Framework


The Constitution of the Republic of Cyprus provides for freedom of religion, and the Government generally respects this right in practice.  The basic law in the Turkish Cypriot community also provides for freedom of religion, and the authorities generally respect this right in practice.  Turkish Cypriots residing in the south and Greek Cypriots living in the north are allowed to practice their religions.  The 1960 Constitution of the Republic of Cyprus specifies that the Greek Orthodox Church (which is autocephalous and not under the authority of the mainland Greek Orthodox Church) has the exclusive right to regulate and administer its internal affairs and property in accordance with its holy canons and charter.  The Constitution states that the Turkish Cypriot religious trust, the Vakf (the Muslim institution that regulates religious activity for Turkish Cypriots), has the exclusive right to regulate and administer its internal affairs and property in accordance with Vakf laws and principles.  No legislative, executive, or other act can contravene or interfere with the Orthodox Church or the Vakf.  Both the Greek Orthodox Church and the Vakf are exempt from taxes with regard to religious activity.  According to law, they are required to pay taxes only on strictly commercial activity.


Three other religious groups are recognized in the Constitution: Armenian Orthodox, Maronite Christians, and Latins (Roman Catholics).  These groups also are exempt from taxes and are eligible, along with the Greek Orthodox Church and the Vakf, for government subsidies to their religious institutions.  No other religious group is recognized in the Constitution.


Both the Government of Cyprus and the Turkish Cypriot administration have constitutional or legal bars against religious discrimination.  The basic agreement covering treatment of Greek Cypriots and Maronites living in the north and Turkish Cypriots living in the south remains the 1975 Vienna III Agreement.  Among other things, this agreement provides for facilities for religious worship.


Religions other than the five recognized religions are not required to register with government authorities; however, if they desire to engage in financial transactions, such as maintaining a bank account, they must register as a nonprofit company, and most do so.  The registration process involves submission through an attorney of an application that states the purpose of the nonprofit organization and provides the names of the organization's directors.  Annual reports of the organization's activities are required.  Such nonprofit organizations are tax-exempt.  Registration is granted promptly, and many religious groups are recognized.  No religious groups were denied registration during the period covered by this report. 


There are no prohibitions against missionary activity or proselytizing in the government-controlled areas.  Foreign missionaries must obtain and periodically renew residence permits in order to live in the country; normally renewal requests are not denied.


Instruction in the Greek Orthodox religion is mandatory for all Greek Orthodox children and is taught in all public primary and secondary schools in classes held twice per week in the government-controlled area.  Members of Jehovah's Witnesses and Maronite parents can request that their children be excused from such instruction.  However, reports indicated that while these children are exempted from attending religious services, they are not excused from all religious instruction.  There are no reports of practitioners of other religions requesting such an exemption.


Members of Jehovah's Witnesses reported some difficulties in claiming conscientious objector status and exemption from required reserve military service in the Greek Cypriot National Guard.  While the law provides for exemption from active military service for conscientious objectors, it does not provide such an exemption from reserve duty.  Legal proceedings were begun against several members of Jehovah's Witnesses for failure to appear for reserve duty.  Their cases were suspended pending a revision of the law.


There is no government-sponsored interfaith activity.


The Government of Cyprus recognizes the following religious holidays as national holidays: the Epiphany, Annunciation, Good Friday, Easter Monday, Holy Spirit Day, Assumption Day, and Christmas Day.


In the northern part of the island, the Turkish Cypriot basic law refers specifically to a "secular republic," and provides for religious freedom; no specific religion is recognized in the basic law.  However, based on the 1960 Constitution, the Vakf, which pays the costs of Muslim religious activities and the salaries of Muslim religious leaders, is tax-exempt in regard to its religious activities (the Vakf pays taxes on its commercial and real estate operations) and receives official subsidies.  No other religious organization is tax-exempt or receives subsidies.


Religious organizations are not required to register with the Turkish Cypriot authorities unless they wish to engage in commercial activity or apply for tax-exempt status.  There are no legal restrictions on missionary activity; however, such activity is rare.


There is instruction in religion, ethics, and comparative religions in two grades of the primary school system in the Turkish Cypriot community.  There is no formal Islamic religious instruction in public schools, and there are no state-supported religious schools.


The Turkish Cypriot authorities do not sponsor any interfaith activity.


The following religious holidays are observed widely in the Turkish Cypriot community: Kurban Bairam, Birthday of the Prophet, and Ramazan Bairam.


Restrictions on Religious Freedom


A 1997 reciprocal agreement allowed Greek Cypriots to visit the Apostolos Andreas monastery in the north on designated Christian religious holidays, and Turkish Cypriots to visit the Hala Sultan Tekke mosque in the south on certain Muslim religious holidays.  Beginning in 1998, Greek Cypriots who wished to visit Apostolos Andreas monastery were required to pay a processing fee imposed by Turkish Cypriot authorities on all Greek Cypriots crossing the buffer zone.


However, due to an incident in the buffer zone protested by UNFICYP and others in July 2000, reciprocal visits to religious sites were suspended.  This incident was not related to the 1997 agreement.  Turkish forces established a checkpoint in a location adjacent to the Greek Cypriot village of Strovilia and the British eastern Sovereign Base Areas and remained at the contested checkpoint in violation of the status quo despite protests from the UNFICYP and others.  Turkish forces restricted UNFICYP movement, including refusing to allow the UNFICYP to man a checkpoint in Kokkina.


On July 31, 2000, Greek Cypriot officials responded to those moves and denied Turkish Cypriots land passage to Kokkina.  Visits to this pocket of land (which contains a Turkish Cypriot nonreligious memorial and is surrounded by the government-controlled area) are included in the 1997 reciprocal visit agreement.  In response, in August and November 2000, Turkish Cypriot officials denied access for Greek Cypriots living in the south to visit the Apostolos Andreas monastery.  In August 2000, Turkish Cypriot visits to Hala Sultan Tekke under the 1997 reciprocal agreement were also suspended. 


In May 2001, the European Court of Human Rights ruled that the Government of Turkey was responsible for restrictions imposed on Greek Cypriots resident in the north in regard to their access to places of worship and participation in other areas of religious life.  On April 23, Turkish Cypriot authorities relaxed restrictions on individuals crossing between the two communities, including abolishing all crossing fees.  As of June 30, there had been over 790,000 crossings of the buffer zone in both directions.  Greek Cypriots have reported relatively easy access to Apostolos Andreas monastery, while Turkish Cypriots have visited religious sites in the government-controlled area.  However, land passage to Kokkina is still restricted.  Some Greek Cypriots and Turkish Cypriots report that slow processing at buffer zone checkpoints has limited the number of people who can travel across the buffer zone to visit religious sites during holidays.


In May the Bishop of Morphou (now resident in the Government-controlled area, although his traditional seat is located in the north) visited a church in the Turkish Cypriot community now used as a religious museum.  On his initial visit, he is reported to have conducted a private religious service.  Later, accompanied by Greek Cypriot television crews, he returned to the church, but Turkish Cypriot authorities barred him from performing services.  Church services conducted by priests resident in north Cyprus are permitted only in designated religious facilities.  Otherwise, a special permit is necessary.  The Bishop was not resident in the north and did not have a special permit, nor did Turkish Cypriot authorities recognize the museum as a designated religious facility.


In February 2003, the Turkish Cypriot administration returned two houses of worship to Jehovah's Witnesses that it had expropriated in 1997.  In August 2002, the Turkish-Cypriot administration lifted a ban prohibiting several ministers of Jehovah's Witnesses from entering north Cyprus, after they were deported in 1997.


In 2001 Turkish Cypriot authorities and the Government of Cyprus came to an agreement, after four years, on the assignment of a second Orthodox priest to work in the north.  However, a suitable candidate had not been identified by the end of the period covered by this report.


Although Maronites (members of a Christian sect originating in Lebanon) may not visit certain religious sites in the north located in military zones, they traditionally have been able to cross without hindrance.  Armenians may not visit any religious sites in the north.


Although missionaries have the legal right to proselytize in both communities, missionary activities are monitored closely by both Greek Cypriot and Turkish Cypriot authorities.  The police may initiate investigations of religious activity based on a citizen's complaint under laws that make it illegal for a missionary to use "physical or moral compulsion" in an attempt to make religious conversions.  They also may investigate when missionaries may be involved in illegal activities that threaten the security of the republic, constitutional or public order, or public health and morals.  There are occasional apprehensions under these laws resulting in publicity but no arrests.  On June 20, 2002, police brought in three American citizens who were walking along a busy Turkish Cypriot road with a large Christian cross to Turkish Cypriot police headquarters.  They were warned that their activity was unwise in a Muslim area and released. 


In both the government-controlled areas and the Turkish Cypriot community, there were no reports of religious prisoners or detainees.


Forced Religious Conversion


In both the government-controlled areas and the Turkish Cypriot community, there were no reports of forced religious conversion, including of minor U.S. citizens who had been abducted or illegally removed from the United States, or of the refusal to allow such citizens to be returned to the United States.


Section III.  Societal Attitudes


There are polite relations between the Greek Cypriot Orthodox Church and the other religious communities in the south.  In the north there are few non-Muslims, but there is no friction between them and the nominally Muslim population.  Greek Cypriots living in the north report that unused Orthodox churches and cemeteries continued to be robbed and vandalized.  Although Turkish Cypriots reported that unused mosques in the south also have been vandalized, the Government routinely carried out maintenance and repair of mosques in the south.  During the period covered by this report, the Government restored a mosque in the southern town of Limassol at the request of Turkish Cypriot residents.  


The Orthodox Church is suspicious of any attempts to proselytize among Greek Cypriots and closely monitors such activities.


Religion is a significantly more prominent component of Greek Cypriot society than of Turkish Cypriot society, with correspondingly greater cultural and political influence.  One example of the relationship between church and state among Greek Cypriots is the fact that the leader of the Greek Cypriot campaign for independence in the 1950's was the head of the Greek Orthodox Church, Archbishop Makarios III, who became president from independence in 1960 and served until his death in 1977.  Bishops and priests are also known to include political messages in their Sunday sermons.


As the largest owner of real estate in the south and the operator of several large business enterprises, the Greek Orthodox Church is a significant economic factor.  Similarly, the Vakf is the largest landowner in the north.


Section IV.  U.S. Government Policy


The U.S. Government discusses religious freedom issues with the authorities in the context of its overall dialog and policy of promoting human rights.


The U.S. Embassy played a key role, working closely with the U.N., in obtaining agreement from both sides in January 2000 to initiate a project to restore the island's two most significant religious sites, the Apostolos Andreas monastery and the Hala Sultan mosque.  Restoration work at the sites began in 2001 based on recommendations from the world's leading experts in structures of this type and period.  Both sites have been cleaned, fenced, and re-landscaped.  The ancillary buildings at both sites have been renovated, and work on the church and mosque buildings is scheduled to begin in the fall of 2002.  The U.S. Embassy continues to discuss this project with religious authorities in both communities.


The Ambassador and other Embassy officers meet periodically with Greek Cypriot and Turkish Cypriot religious authorities regarding specific religious freedom concerns.