2012 Report on International Religious Freedom: Cyprus

Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor
May 20, 2013

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Executive SummaryShare    

The constitution and other laws and policies protect religious freedom and, in practice, the government generally respected religious freedom. The trend in the government’s respect for religious freedom did not change significantly during the year. Turkish Cypriots had relatively easy access to religious sites in the government-controlled area, although some cemeteries and mosques within Greek Cypriot military camps were reportedly inaccessible and neglected. Some prisoners in the Central Prison reported that prison regulations restricted their religious rights.

There were reports of societal abuses or discrimination based on religious affiliation, belief, or practice, and prominent societal leaders took positive steps to promote religious freedom. In April arsonists attacked the Koprulu Haci Ibrahim Aga mosque in Limassol. The archbishop of the Autocephalous Greek Orthodox Church of Cyprus (Church of Cyprus) and the government publicly condemned the attack, and the municipality helped restore the mosque.

U.S. officials met with government leaders, nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), international organizations, and religious leaders to discuss religious freedom issues, including access to religious sites. In addition, embassy staff visited sites of religious significance throughout the island and observed religious ceremonies.

Note: Since 1974, the government of the Republic of Cyprus has controlled the southern part of the island, and Turkish Cypriots have administered the northern part of the island. In 1983, the northern part proclaimed itself the “Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus” (“TRNC”). The United States does not recognize the “TRNC,” nor does any other country aside from Turkey. A substantial number of Turkish troops remain on the island. The UN Peacekeeping Force in Cyprus (UNFICYP) patrols a buffer zone, or “green line,” separating the two parts. The 1975 Vienna III Agreement covers the treatment of Greek Cypriots and Maronite Catholics living in the area administered by Turkish Cypriots and Turkish Cypriots living in the government-controlled area. The area administered by Turkish Cypriots is discussed in a separate section in this report.

Section I. Religious DemographyShare    

According to the October 2011 census, which contains no data on religious affiliation, the population of the government-controlled area is more than 840,000. According to the 2001 census, 95 percent of the permanent population in the government-controlled area belongs to the autocephalous Greek Orthodox Church of Cyprus. Other religious groups include Roman Catholics, Protestants, Muslims, Maronite Catholics, Armenian Orthodox, Jews, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Bahais, and Buddhists. The religious affiliation of recent immigrants and migrant workers is generally different from that of native-born citizens. Most of the approximately 2,100 Jews are foreign residents.

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious FreedomShare    

Legal/Policy Framework

The constitution and other laws and policies protect religious freedom.

The constitution specifies that the Church of Cyprus has the exclusive right to regulate and administer its internal affairs and property in accordance with its holy canons and charter. By law, the Church of Cyprus is exempt from taxes on religious activity and pays taxes only on strictly commercial activities.

The constitution sets guidelines for the Vakif, a Sunni Muslim institution that regulates religious activity for Turkish Cypriots. The Vakif is tax-exempt and has the exclusive right to regulate and administer its internal affairs and property in accordance with its laws and principles. No legislative, executive, or other act may contravene or interfere with the Church of Cyprus or the Vakif. However, the Vakif operates only in the area administered by Turkish Cypriots and does not administer mosques located in the government-controlled area. Mosques in government-controlled areas receive financial support from the government.

The constitution recognizes three other religious groups: Maronite Catholics, Armenian Orthodox, and Roman Catholics (referred to as “Latins”). All are exempt from taxes and eligible for government subsidies for their religious institutions.

Religious groups not among the five recognized in the constitution are not required to register with the government. To engage in financial transactions and maintain bank accounts, however, they must register as nonprofit organizations. In order to register, a religious group must submit through an attorney an application stating its purpose and providing the names of its directors. Religious groups registered as nonprofit organizations are tax-exempt and must provide annual reports; they are not eligible for government subsidies.

Foreign missionaries must obtain and periodically renew residence permits to live in the country. It is illegal for a missionary to use “physical or moral compulsion” to bring about religious conversions. Police may investigate missionary activity based on a citizen’s complaint.

The government requires Greek Orthodox religious instruction in public primary and secondary schools. The Ministry of Education may excuse primary school students of other religious groups from attending religious services and instruction at the request of their guardians. Secondary school students may be excused by the ministry from religious instruction on grounds of religion or conscience, and they may be excused 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. There are two options available for conscientious objectors: unarmed military service, which is a maximum of five months longer than the normal 24-month service; or social service, which is a maximum of nine months longer than normal service, but requires fewer hours per day.

The government observes the following religious holidays as national holidays: Epiphany, Annunciation, Good Friday, Easter Monday, Holy Spirit Day (Pentecost), Assumption, and Christmas.

Government Practices

There were no reports of abuses of religious freedom.

The Ministry of Commerce generally granted religious groups registration as nonprofit organizations promptly.

Turkish Cypriots had relatively easy access to religious sites in the government-controlled area. A Turkish Cypriot authority reported, however, that Turkish Cypriot cemeteries and mosques in the villages of Kosi and Aplanda in the Larnaca district were inaccessible because they were within Greek Cypriot military camps. Turkish Cypriot authorities also stated that Greek Cypriot maintenance of mosques was limited to the main city centers and tourist areas, and that other mosques in the government-controlled area were neglected. In addition, Turkish Cypriots stated that the Ministry of Communications and Works’ Department of Antiquities kept Hala Sultan Tekke (Mosque) open only during conventional museum hours, thus limiting access to the mosque to only two of the five daily prayer times.

On March 9, the press reported that police in Ayia Napa approached two Jehovah’s Witnesses distributing religious publications in the street and issued them each 85 euro ($111.35) fines for solicitation. Upon learning of the incident, the attorney general ordered that the fines be rescinded. The ombudsman, an independent state official, examined the complaint submitted by the Jehovah’s Witnesses and noted that police leadership had not issued specific guidance to police officers on the legal right to proselytize.

The international nonprofit organization Conscience and Peace Tax International and the Jehovah’s Witnesses argued that the longer duration of alternative service for conscientious objectors compared to military service was punitive. In contrast to previous years, the ombudsman’s office did not receive any complaints from conscientious objectors about the procedures used by the government to confirm their conscientious objector status and eligibility for alternative military service.

The Buddhist community continued to face difficulties finding a site for a permanent temple. The community purchased land outside of Nicosia, but building regulations allowed for only 6 percent of the land to be used for habitable structures. Following denial of the community’s request for a variance, the Interior Ministry proposed an exchange of the Buddhists’ land for government land, although at year’s end the exchange had not been completed. The group continued to use a meditation center in Nicosia as a temple.

Several religious groups reported difficulties obtaining visas and residency permits for clergy and student volunteers from countries outside the European Union. The government did not process applications and renewals in a timely manner, and some groups reported that some members were forced to leave the country rather than risk staying illegally and face possible deportation.

Minority religious groups reported that military recruits rarely requested to be excused from taking part in a common prayer led by Church of Cyprus clergy during swearing-in ceremonies because they feared such a request would attract negative attention.

Some prisoners in the Central Prison stated that prison management restricted their religious rights. In April the ombudsman reported that some members of the Church of Cyprus from Pontus filed a complaint that the prison management had denied them access to the church on November 21, 2011, an important religious holiday. The ombudsman also reported in April that prison management did not allow representatives of the Christian Center, an evangelical group located in Nicosia, to visit prisoners who had expressed the wish to meet with them. Prison management informed the ombudsman that prison regulations did not allow prisoners to be visited by representatives of a religious group other than the one they had declared upon admission into the prison. The ombudsman concluded that in both cases the prison management had restricted the religious freedom of the prisoners. The ombudsman recommended an amendment of the prison regulations to allow prisoners to meet with representatives of any religious group as desired.

The Jehovah’s Witnesses, which had previously reported problems obtaining exemptions for children from religious instruction, stated that the Ministry of Education generally granted exemptions promptly and that their children did not experience difficulties in being excused from attending school performances containing religious content. However, the Jehovah’s Witnesses reported that some schools did not make arrangements for the students to engage in supervised school work during the time of religious instruction class, as required by regulations. In one case, a school asked a student who had been granted an exemption to stay in class during religious instruction and punished her with an unexcused absence when she refused to do so. The Jehovah’s Witnesses submitted an official complaint to the Ministry of Education and the ombudsman. The complaint was being investigated at year’s end.

In October the Church of Cyprus and the Church and Society Commission of the Conference of European Churches organized a conference in Nicosia entitled “An Ongoing Need for Freedom of Religion or Belief in Cyprus,” which brought together religious and political representatives from the country and the European Union. Attendees included the archbishop of the Church of Cyprus, the Maronite Catholic archbishop, the Armenian Orthodox archbishop, the Turkish Cypriot imam of Hala Sultan Tekke, and a representative from the Anglican Church of Cyprus. The interior minister provided opening remarks.

On October 26 and 27, nearly 1,000 Turkish Cypriots visited the Hala Sultan Tekke to celebrate Kurban Bayram for the second time since 1960. In addition, nearly 600 Turkish Cypriots visited the mosque for Asura on November 25.

Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious FreedomShare    

There were reports of societal abuses or discrimination based on religious affiliation, belief, or practice, and prominent societal leaders took positive steps to promote religious freedom.

On April 13, arsonists set on fire the Koprulu Haci Ibrahim Aga mosque in Limassol. The Turkish Cypriot press alleged that Greek Cypriot vandals were responsible for the attack, which occurred during Easter celebrations and extensively damaged the exterior as well as doors and windows. The government and the archbishop of the Church of Cyprus publicly condemned the attack. The municipality helped restore the mosque, which was fully operational at year’s end. A Turkish Cypriot imam noted that this was not the first time the mosque had been attacked.

Some representatives of the Jewish community reported that members were verbally harassed on various occasions throughout the year.

As ethnicity and religion were often inextricably linked, it was difficult to categorize many incidents of discrimination specifically as ethnic or religious intolerance. Those who were not members of the prevailing religious group often faced negative social reactions if they chose to refrain from participating in public ceremonies that were religious in nature. Likewise, Greek Cypriots who converted from Greek Orthodoxy to other faiths sometimes faced social ostracism. However, relations between the Church of Cyprus and other religious communities in the government-controlled area were generally cordial.

The Technical Committee on Cultural Heritage, a group composed of Greek Cypriots and Turkish Cypriots appointed by the leaders of their communities, identified cultural heritage sites throughout the island in need of emergency preservation measures. These sites included four mosques in the government-controlled area. The committee also provided partial support to maintain the Agios Panteleimonas Monastery in Myrtou, and organized small-scale, grassroots initiatives to help maintain cultural heritage sites, including religious sites, in poor condition on both sides of the island.

Section IV. U.S. Government PolicyShare    

U.S. embassy officials met frequently with government leaders, NGOs, international organizations, and leaders from a variety of religious groups to discuss religious freedom issues, including access to religious sites. Embassy staff observed religious ceremonies at Hala Sultan Tekke, which included attendees from government ministries, as well as leaders of the Greek Orthodox, Armenian Orthodox, Maronite Catholic, and Roman Catholic communities. Embassy staff regularly visited sites of religious significance and met with representatives of minority religious groups to listen to their concerns. Embassy staff attended the October conference on religious freedom.