2014 Report on International Religious Freedom: Cyprus - the Area Administered by Turkish Cypriots

Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor
Report
October 14, 2015

This is the basic text view. SWITCH NOW to the new, more interactive format.

   

 

Since 1974 the southern part of Cyprus has been under the control of the government of the Republic of Cyprus, while 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 remained on the island. A buffer zone, or “green line,” patrolled by the UN Peacekeeping Force in Cyprus (UNFICYP), separates the two parts.

Executive SummaryShare    

Since 1974 the northern part of Cyprus has been run by a Turkish Cypriot administration that 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. The Turkish Cypriot “constitution” guarantees freedom of religion. It prohibits forced participation in worship and religious services and states religious education may only be conducted under “state” supervision. It grants the Muslim Vakf, which regulates religious activity for Turkish Cypriots, the exclusive right to regulate its internal affairs in accordance with Vakf laws. UNFICYP reported that the number of pilgrims able to worship rose during the year. The Turkish Cypriot authorities approved 57 of 93 requests received through UNFICYP for access to Greek Orthodox, Maronite Catholic, and Armenian Orthodox places of worship in the north. Turkish Cypriot authorities reported they allowed church services for the first time in more than 40 years at 14 locations. Some religious groups reported police surveillance of their activities.

Religious groups complained some religious sites to which they had little or no access were damaged or close to collapse and remained unpreserved. Some religious groups reported Turkish Cypriot converts from Islam to other religions, particularly Christianity, faced social ostracism and political criticism. Religious leaders continued to promote religious dialogue by meeting and arranging visits to places of worship across the “green line.”

Embassy representatives met with Turkish Cypriot representatives, NGOs, international organizations, and religious leaders to discuss access to religious sites and the ability to hold religious services at the sites without restrictions.

Section I. Religious DemographyShare    

According to census information released in 2013 by the Turkish Cypriot authorities, which contains no data on religious affiliation, the population of the area administered by Turkish Cypriots is 286,257. Sociologists estimate 98 percent of the population is Sunni Muslim. An estimated 10,000 to 12,000 immigrant workers of Turkish, Kurdish, and Arab origin are Alevi Muslims, and there are also small numbers of followers of other schools of Islam. Other small groups include approximately 330 members of the autocephalous Greek Orthodox Church of Cyprus, 200 members of the Russian Orthodox Church, 150 Bahais, 100 Maronite Catholics, 180 Anglicans, 150 mostly expatriate Jews, 300 Turkish speaking Protestants, and 40 Jehovah’s Witnesses. There are approximately 450 African students who are predominantly Pentecostals and Roman Catholics.

Section II. Status of “Government” Respect for Religious FreedomShare    

Legal Framework

The Turkish Cypriot “constitution” refers specifically to a “secular republic” and guarantees freedom of religion and conscience. It prohibits forced prayer, forced attendance of religious services, and condemnation based on religious beliefs. Religious education may only be conducted under “state” supervision. The “law” does not recognize any specific religion. It states, however, that the Vakf, a Muslim religious foundation which 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. The Vakf has preferential tax status; it is tax exempt in its religious activities, but its commercial operations are subject to applicable taxes. It also receives income from properties it manages. According to the “constitution,” the Turkish Cypriot authorities shall help the Vakf in the execution of Muslim religious services and in meeting the expenses of such services. No other religious organization is tax exempt or receives subsidies from the 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, stating “the Greek Cypriots at present in the north of the island are free to stay and they will be given every help to lead a normal life, including facilities for education and for the practice of their religion, as well as medical care by their own doctors and freedom of movement in the north.”

Turkish Cypriot “regulations” stipulate Greek Orthodox residents may hold liturgies or masses conducted by two designated priests at three designated functional churches in the Karpas peninsula without seeking permission, and Maronite residents may hold liturgies or masses at four designated functional Maronite churches without seeking permission. Religious groups must submit applications to the authorities for permission to hold religious services at churches or monasteries other than these seven designated churches. Permission is also necessary for priests other than those officially designated to conduct services. Specific permission is required for services including participation by Cypriots who are not residents in the Turkish Cypriot-administered area, such as members of the Greek Orthodox, Maronite Catholic, and Armenian Orthodox churches living in the government-controlled area. Applications to hold worship services at these sites are required 10 days before the date of such religious services and coordinated through the UNFICYP.

The “Presidency of Religious Affairs” represents Islam in the area administered by the Turkish Cypriots. Under its direction, resident imams may conduct prayers and sermons in mosques.

Religious groups are not required to register with authorities as associations, although only registered associations have the right to engage in commercial activity and maintain bank accounts. According to the “constitution,” religious education can only be conducted under the Turkish Cypriot authorities’ control and supervision. Associations do not receive tax-exempt status or any “government” benefits or subsidies. Religious groups are not permitted to register as associations if the stated purpose of the association is to provide religious education to their members.

There is compulsory instruction covering religion in grades four through eight in all schools. This instruction focuses primarily on Islam, but also includes sessions on comparative religion. The instruction is mandatory and attendance is required of all students, regardless of their faith, but non-Muslim students may be excused from attending religious instruction at the request of their guardians. At the high school level, such instruction is optional.

There are no provisions or “laws” allowing Turkish Cypriots to engage in conscientious objection to military service, which includes a one-day annual reserve duty requirement in addition to the 12-15 month initial service requirement.

“Government” Practices

The Turkish Cypriot authorities continued the practice of limiting access to Greek Orthodox, Maronite Catholic, and Armenian Orthodox religious sites and placed other restrictions on these religious groups. At the same time, the authorities permitted religious services to be held in a number of churches for the first time in 40 to 50 years.

After 10 years of applications, the authorities allowed a Turkish-speaking Protestant congregation to form the Turkish Protestant Association. The group reported better treatment by the police after registration. A religious leader from the association said its registration had caused police surveillance to become more subtle than in prior years although the surveillance continued. In one incident, the police interrupted a service but allowed it to continue after seeing the congregation’s registration document.

Alevis continued to be registered as a nongovernmental association. There were no reports of other religious groups attempting to register during the year.

The authorities restricted access to Greek Orthodox, Maronite Catholic, and Armenian Orthodox places of worship. Greek Orthodox and Maronite Catholics could not freely visit most religious sites located in military zones in the area administered by Turkish Cypriots. One Greek Orthodox monastery was open for prayer but still required special permission for Mass.

Turkish Cypriots eased restrictions on holding regular religious services in certain churches, although they did not approve all requests. UNFICYP reported that of the 93 requests, 57 were approved. Eleven additional requests sent directly to the Turkish Cypriot authorities were also approved.

On January 8, the authorities allowed church services for the first time in 57 years at the Church of Saint George Exorinos in the walled city of Famagusta. Approximately 5,000 Greek Cypriots, including high-level officials, politicians, and religious leaders, attended a Good Friday service at the same church on April 18.

The authorities permitted a religious ceremony to be held at the Armenian church and monastery inside the walled city of Nicosia for the first time in 50 years. The Armenian archbishop conducted the ceremony, and more than 500 people of Armenian descent living in the north and the south as well as high-level officials attended the service.

The authorities allowed church services in the following 14 churches for the first time in 40 years: Church of Saint George Exorinos in Gazimagusa/Famagusta; Church of Panagia Theotokou in Kythrea/Degirmenlik; Church of St. Charalambos in Turkmenkoy/Kontea; Church of Saint George in Kyrenia/Girne; Church of Saint George in Duzova/Exometochi; Church of Ayios Antonis in Degirmenlik/Kythrea; Church of Ayios Ioannis Prodromos in Akova/Gypsou; Church of Panayia Evangelistria in Alaykoy/Gerolakkos Nicosia; Church of St. Nicolas in Mormeneske/Limnia; Church of Ayios Nicolaos in Yayla/Syrianohori; Armenian church and monastery in Lefkosa/Nicosia; Church of Ayios Georgios in Vadili/Vatyli; Church of Ayia Marina in Degirmenlik/Kythrea; and Church of Archangel Michael in Kumyali/Koma tou Yialou.

In May Greek Cypriots held a religious ceremony at the St. Irini Church in Akdeniz/Ayios Irini village. Press reports said the Turkish Cypriot police monitored the service and the church was in disrepair.

The Turkish Cypriot authorities denied permission to use certain Christian religious sites for religious services, including the Akanthou/Tatlisu church. The authorities had granted permission for a church service but later rescinded it, as the church was being used as a cultural center and museum.

In April the archbishop of the Church of Cyprus sent a statement to the press saying the authorities in the area administered by Turkish Cypriots had rejected his request to visit the Apostolos Varnavas Monastery near Famagusta. In May Turkish Cypriot police stopped a Maronite religious ceremony at the St. Antonis Chapel in Kythrea/Degirmenlik, minutes before the service was to end, reportedly because the Maronites had not applied for permission through the designated UN and Turkish Cypriot channels. One hundred Maronites were participating in the ceremony that was also a celebration of the chapel’s restoration. A Maronite representative later described the incident as a “misunderstanding.”

One religious group complained religious items were being held in museums against the wishes of the community.

The “Presidency of Religious Affairs” staffed 190-200 mosques with 370 imams. Members of the majority Sunni religious community voiced concerns the “government” was interfering with religious affairs by selecting the imams.

Some religious groups reported that Turkish Cypriot authorities, including the police, monitored their activities. A resident Greek Orthodox priest reported heavy police presence during church services and stated the police questioned him frequently about his activities. Turkish Cypriot representatives stated the purpose of the police presence was to provide security and protect religious icons and artifacts; however, religious groups said the monitoring was intimidation and harassment.

Some non-Sunni Muslims lacked places of worship and funding to construct such facilities. Alevis reported that, due to the lack of a cemevi (house of worship), they were required to conduct funerals inside mosques, contrary to their traditions. Alevi representatives stated they felt no pressure and could freely practice their faith; however, they perceived favoritism in “state” funding toward the Sunni Muslim population through financing mosque construction and administration of mosques. The Alevi Cultural Association, an Alevi NGO, met with Turkish Cypriot authorities to request support to complete its cemevi.

Some non-Sunni Muslim religious groups complained their children were still required to complete the mandatory religion course, focused on Sunni Islam, in public schools.

Fifteen people in the north announced they were conscientious objectors, eight of whom were women and so ineligible for military service; two were declared disabled by the military, and five had ongoing cases in the “military court” at year’s end.

On February 25, Murat Kanatli, a conscientious objector who had refused to participate in the annual military reserve duty since 2009, was found guilty by the “military court.” The “judge” decided Kanatli was not a conscientious objector and ordered Kanatli to pay 500 Turkish liras ($215) or serve 10 days in jail. Kanatli refused to pay and was jailed for 10 days from February 25 to March 6. Many NGOs, unions, and political parties criticized and protested the decision, and Kanatli appealed the decision. On October 9, the “Military High Court” rejected the appeal. Kanatli told the press he would take the case to the European Court of Human Rights. The “military court” found another conscientious objector, Haluk Tufanli, guilty in December and ordered him to pay 500 Turkish liras or serve 10 days in jail.

Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious FreedomShare    

Some religious groups complained some religious sites to which they had little or no access were damaged or close to collapse.

Turkish Cypriot religious groups reported Muslim parents seeking to send their children to religious summer courses faced strong public criticism from secular community members, particularly local teachers.

Some religious groups reported Turkish Cypriot converts from Islam to other religions, particularly Christianity, faced social ostracism and political criticism. A Turkish Cypriot Protestant leader said members of the Protestant congregation feared openly attending church due to societal discrimination.

The bicommunal TCCH and the UN Development Program (UNDP) Partnership for the Future announced the restoration of the Apostolos Andreas Monastery in the Karpas Peninsula. In 2013, the UNDP had signed agreements with the Church of Cyprus and the Vakf for restoration of the Apostolos Andreas Monastery. The restoration was funded by the Church of Cyprus and the Vakf. UNDP signed a contract with Greek Cypriot and Turkish Cypriot contractors in July and work began in September. In addition, the committee organized small-scale grassroots initiatives to help maintain cultural heritage sites, including religious sites, in poor condition on both sides of the island.

In October the TCCH announced the completion of emergency measures and conservation works, funded by the EU, at the Church of Agios Nicolas in Syrianochori/Siryanohoro/Yayla.

Religious leaders continued to promote religious dialogue by meeting and arranging visits to places of worship across the “green line.” In February all religious leaders of Cyprus, including the archbishop of the Church of Cyprus, the mufti, the Maronite archbishop, the Armenian archbishop, and the patriarchal Latin vicar, made a statement announcing their support for the Joint Declaration by the Greek Cypriot and Turkish Cypriot leaders on the resumption of UN-led settlement negotiations. In April the mufti hosted a lunch for religious leaders in Cyprus and voiced commitment to work together with all religious leaders.

In September the press reported that Greek Orthodox cemeteries in Karakoumi/Karakum, Marathovouno/Ulukisla, Lysi/Akdogan, Makrasyka/Incirli, Trachoni Kythreas/Demirhan, Trikomo/Yeni Iskele, Flamoudi/Mersinlik, Arnadi/Kuzucuk, and Vatili/Vadili had been damaged by looters stealing metal crosses.

Section IV. U.S. Government PolicyShare    

Embassy representatives met with Turkish Cypriot authorities to discuss access to religious sites and the ability to hold religious services at sites without restrictions. Embassy staff worked to ensure the Armenian Orthodox community was allowed to contribute its views to the Vakf regarding the use of the newly restored Armenian church and monastery complex in north Nicosia.

Embassy officers also met with religious leaders, NGOs, and international organizations to discuss access issues. Embassy staff observed religious ceremonies at Saint Mamas Monastery in Morphou/Guzelyurt, Saint George Exorinos Church in Famagusta, the Armenian church and monastery in north Nicosia, and Apostolos Andreas Monastery in the Karpas Peninsula, historically important churches attracting large numbers of worshippers from the government‑controlled area, and visited the Maronite enclave in Kormakitis.