2021 Report on International Religious Freedom: Cyprus—Area Administered by Turkish Cypriots

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 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 places) 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.  For areas in the north that have different Greek and Turkish names, both are listed (e.g., Kormakitis/Korucam).

Executive Summary

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 and not an independent organization.  Turkish Cypriot authorities continued to grant access to Greek Orthodox religious sites, although visits declined due to the COVID-19 pandemic.  The “Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA)” said during the year it approved 37 of 66 requests to hold religious services between July-October 2021, compared with 26 of 33 requests in 2020.  The “MFA” said, “18 could not be facilitated as they fell outside the pre-determined criteria.”  Turkish-Speaking Protestant Associations (TSPA) representatives continued to report police surveillance of their activities, although the surveillance was somewhat reduced, primarily due to a reduction in church activities as a result of the pandemic.  According to Greek Orthodox representatives, police monitored their church services.  They reported plainclothes police officers present during services checked priests’ identification and monitored the congregation.

The TSPA said Turkish Cypriots who converted to other faiths often experienced abuse, insult, criticism in society, and workplace discrimination.  The TCCH reported completing conservation and structural support to five churches and the walls of Nicosia’s historic city center.  Mufti of Cyprus Talip Atalay and Church of Cyprus Archbishop Chrysostomos II and their representatives continued to meet throughout the year until Atalay was removed from his position in July.  During a July weekend days before Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s visit to the area administered by Turkish Cypriots, then “TRNC Prime Minister” Ersan Saner named Ahmet Unsal to succeed Atalay as the Mufti of Cyprus.

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 access to religious sites.  Embassy officials 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 and Alevi Muslim, Armenian and Greek Orthodox, Maronite, Roman Catholic, and Protestant communities to discuss access to religious sites and instances of religious-based discrimination.

 

Section I. Religious Demography

According to a statement from the “Statistics Council,” as of August 2021, the population of the area administered by Turkish Cypriots is 382,836.  The census contains no data on religious affiliation.  Sociologists estimate as much as 97 percent of the population is Sunni Muslim.  The Alevi Culture Association estimates approximately 10,000 immigrants of Turkish, Kurdish, and Arab origin and their descendants are Alevi Muslims.  The TSPA estimates there are 1,000 Turkish-speaking Protestants.  The government of the Republic of Cyprus estimates 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 2020-21 academic year, there were approximately 94,381 foreign students enrolled at universities in the area administered by Turkish Cypriots.  Of these, 60 percent were Muslim Turks and the rest were predominantly Christians and Muslims from more than 140 countries.

 

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

LEGAL FRAMEWORK

The Turkish Cypriot “constitution” states the territory 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 recognize exclusively 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 conduct liturgies led by two priests designated by the Orthodox Church at three designated functional churches on the Karpas Peninsula 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, Maronite Catholic, and Armenian Orthodox worshippers 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 upon “government” approval.  The “MFA” continued to evaluate requests for religious services based on certain criteria.

For authorities to consider an application, the day of the requested service must be a religious day (Christmas, Easter, the church’s name day – sometimes referred to as its feast day) and should be of significance to that religious group.  The church or monastery must be structurally sound and not be located in a military zone, with exceptions for some Maronite churches.  It must not have a dual use, for example, as a museum, and there should be no complaints from local Turkish Cypriot residents, and police must be available to provide security.

Permission is also necessary for priests other than those who were 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 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 represents Islam in the area administered by Turkish Cypriots and functions as a civil authority.  Whereas the Vakf manages Muslim-donated property as an endowment for charitable purposes, the “Religious Affairs Department” oversees how imams conduct prayers and deliver Friday sermons in mosques.

Under the section “Offenses Against Religion” in the “TRNC Criminal Code,” 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 people, commits a minor offense.

Religious groups are not required to register with authorities as associations to assemble or worship, but only associations registered with the “Ministry of Interior (MOI)” have the right to engage in commercial activity and maintain bank accounts.  Religious and nonreligious groups have the same registration process, and they are required to 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 are not permitted to 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” chooses the curriculum, which is based on a textbook commissioned by the Ministry of Education in Turkey.  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.  The penalty for refusing to complete mandatory military service is up to three years’ imprisonment, a fine of up to 10,800 Turkish lira ($830), or both.

 

“GOVERNMENT” PRACTICES

The “MFA” reported that despite the rule to submit religious service applications at least 10 days in advance for religious services, it granted three that were requested seven days in advance of the service.  The UNFICYP office responsible for facilitating these requests said Greek Cypriot religious service applicants often complained “MFA” approvals were granted a few days before the requested service, causing organizers to cancel.

According to statistics reported by the “MFA,” authorities continued to grant access to Greek Orthodox places of worship.  UNFICYP reported the “MFA” approved 21 of 38 requests it received to facilitate religious services at churches in the northern part of the island between August and December.  In 2020, UNFICYP reported 15 approvals of 18 requests.  The “MFA” reported it approved 37 of 66 total requests (including both UNFICYP-facilitated requests and requests submitted directly to the “MFA”) to hold religious services, compared with 26 of 31 total requests in 2020.  The “MFA” also reported 18 requests were denied because they could not be facilitated, as they fell outside the predetermined criteria.

Three Greek Orthodox churches, Apostolos Andreas, St. Barnabas, and St. Mamas, were again 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, individuals could still pray at the churches during those hours.  The “MFA” reported that due to the COVID-19 pandemic, no additional Greek Orthodox churches were reopened for services for the first time since 1974.

According to a church representative and media reports, on January 27, authorities raided the home and business of an expatriate American pastor living in the “TRNC,” seizing Bibles and Christian literature in various languages.  Police said the pastor’s business, including a cafe, operated without a license.  Kibris Postasi, a daily newspaper, published an article linking him to another American pastor who had been imprisoned in Turkey for two years on charges of espionage.  After detaining him for 11 hours, the “government” released the pastor on a 160,000 Turkish lira ($12,300) bond and confiscated his passport.  They charged him in March with illegally importing Christian materials.  Authorities assessed a fine against the pastor of 5,000 Turkish lira ($390).  He was required to apply for court permission to travel.  At year’s end, he awaited trial.

The TSPA reported police continued to monitor its activities, asking specific questions about TSPA members and ceremonies.  The TSPA said there was less monitoring during the year due to a reduction in church activities resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic.

A Greek Orthodox representative stated 72 religious sites remained inaccessible due to their being located within Turkish military zones or the 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 continued to report 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 of Archangelos Michael is located within a military zone.  The “MFA” said it required only advance notification, not a request for access, to hold Sunday services and that no one was refused admittance during the year.  According to the “MFA,” the Turkish military again allowed Maronites to celebrate Mass in Ayia Marina in July and denied Maronites access to the Church of Marki near Kormakitis/Korucam.  The “MFA” reported that the physical and structural condition of the Church of Marki was not safe to hold a religious service and that the church was located in a military zone.

As a result of a UN Development Program- and TCCH-facilitated tender, restoration and maintenance work began at the Armenian Sourp Magar Monastery during the year.  Although completion had been expected during the year, technical problems that emerged between the contractor and the UNDP cancelled the project.

The TCCH reported that during the year it completed 16 projects, including the restoration of two archeological sites, two cemeteries, two fountains, and 10 conservation and support projects at various religious sites.

In March, the TCCH announced completion of conservation efforts at the Afendrika archaeological site in Karpaz.  The site, situated in the ancient settlement known as Urania, includes Panagia Church, Asomatos Church and Agios Georgios Church.  The committee carried out conservation work at these sites with technical support from the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) and EU financing.  As part of the conservation work, the committee cleared the site of shrubbery, strengthened the structures, and opened water drainage for improved rainwater management.  In June, the TCCH announced the completion of conservation work on Panagia Church and its perimeter wall.

During the year, the TCCH also announced the completion of conservation work at Agios Artemon Church in Afentaia/Gaziköy; Panagia Church and its perimeter wall in Askeia/Pasakoy; and the St. Epiphanos, Kampanopetra, and St. Barnabas basilicas at the Salamis archeological site.

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.  The conservation work is expected to last nine months and be completed in the first quarter of 2022.

The TCCH also continued restoring other religious sites.  It and the UNDP Partnership for the Future also continued restoration work on the Greek Orthodox Apostolos Andreas Monastery on the Karpas Peninsula, a popular destination for pilgrims.  The TCCH reported preparations for initiating the tendering process for the second phase of the restoration.

According to local press reports, the Turkish government provided significant support to Sunni Islamic activities in the area administered by Turkish Cypriots.  Such programs supplied iPads and bicycles as rewards to youth for participating in Islamic activities and funded community programs and iftars during Ramadan.  According to press reports and the Turkish Cypriot Human Rights Foundation, the Turkish “embassy” distributed 5,000 bicycles to children for attending online religious courses and praying twice a day at a mosque.  The program brochure, a photo of which was published in Yeniduzen, reportedly said, “Come to the mosque, get your bicycle.”  Human rights activists called the program an “imposition of religion” and a “manipulation of children.”

Secular Turkish Cypriot groups and teachers unions continued to criticize a protocol with Turkey announced by the “MOE” in 2019 that opened a Turkish Anatolia Religious High School program within the premises of Hala Sultan Religious High School, a public school.  They said the protocol imposed Islam on secular Turkish Cypriots.  The Secondary Education Teachers Union reported the administration of the Hala Sultan Religious High School and the “MOE” enrolled 200 students in the school without the usually required entrance exams.

The Alevi Culture Association reported Alevi children were subject to mandatory Sunni Islam religious instruction at school and could not opt out.

The “Religious Affairs Department” continued to appoint and fund all 225 imams at the 210 Sunni mosques in the northern part of the island.  “TRNC Prime Minister” Saner informed Mufti of Cyprus Atalay July 17 that he would be replaced as “Head of Religious Affairs” and Mufti of Cyprus effective immediately.  While Atalay had exceeded the official but previously unenforced limit of 10 years in office (two five-year terms), local media commentators and other sources said they were surprised by the abrupt timing.  Since it came immediately before Kurban Bayram (Eid al-Adha) and the July visit by Turkish President Erdogan, many observers assessed the change was politically motivated.  Then “TRNC Prime Minister” Saner named Ahmet Unsal to succeed Atalay as Cyprus’s Mufti.

A representative of the Church of Cyprus again stated that some religious sites to which Church officials had little or no access were deteriorating.

Greek Orthodox religious groups continued to report 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.

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.

In March, the Kurdish community living in the area administrated by Turkish Cypriots, together with leftist unions and left-wing political parties, including the main opposition Republican Turkish Party and “MPs,” gathered at the Kyrenia Gate in north Nicosia to celebrate Nowruz (the arrival of spring and new year in Kurdish culture).  Press reported participation was low due to the COVID-19 pandemic, but there was a “very heavy police presence” at the event.  Kurds lit a Nowruz fire and gathered around it singing songs.  There were no incidents at the event.

On April 15, the Turkish Cypriot “Constitutional Court” ruled Quran lessons organized by the “Department of Religious Affairs” at mosques were unconstitutional, overturning legislation that gave authority to the “Department” to organize such courses.  According to the decision, the “Department’s” organizing Quran courses without the approval of the “Ministry of Education” had violated the “constitutional” provision on secularism of the “state.”  Head of the Turkish Cypriot Bar Association Hasan Esendagli said the court’s decision was a turning point and that it was the first time the “Constitutional Court” examined whether a law regarding religious belief and practice was permitted under the country’s secular constitution.  He said the overturned “law” had been problematic, since it granted limitless powers to the “Department,” which is comprised of a group of religious figures.  Turkish President Erdogan (along with other Turkish officials including the Vice President) criticized the decision, saying, “It is impossible for us to accept this.  The head of the Constitutional Court should learn secularism.”  Making a call to the head of the Constitutional Court to correct the mistake, Erdogan said, “North Cyprus is not France.  They have to adopt the practices in Turkey. …otherwise, the steps we will take will be different.”

On April 19, Turkish Cypriot lawyers staged a demonstration to protest Erdogan’s remarks.  Speaking at the protest, Esendagli said Turkish officials, including the Turkish President himself, had either spoken without knowing the details of the verdict or had deliberately distorted the facts.  Chief Justice Narin Ferdi Sefik and several other Supreme Court judges supported the protest, saluting the lawyers from the court building.

 

Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom

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

A video posted April 7 on YouTube showed an electronic music event recorded on March 20 on the grounds of the Saint Magar Armenian Monastery, the only Armenian monastery in Cyprus.  According to the RTCYPP, the video stirred negative reaction online among the Armenian community and news outlets.  In a RTCYPP-released joint statement, the five constitutionally recognized religious leaders of Cyprus condemned what they termed the monastery’s misuse and called for protection of all places of worship against vandalism, misuse, and desecration.

The TSPA continued to report societal discrimination, including verbal harassment, toward Protestants.  The TSPA again said Turkish Cypriots who converted to other faiths, particularly Christianity, faced societal criticism and feared losing their jobs.  The TSPA continued to report many members preferred to remain silent about their faiths and beliefs.  The TSPA also reported police continued to closely monitor its activities and occasionally visited representatives to inquire about church activities and attendance levels.

During the year, there were few pilgrimages and meetings across the “green line” due to pandemic mitigation measures.

 

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement

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 and Alevi Muslim, Armenian and 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.

The Ambassador hosted an iftar on May 10 for Mufti of Cyprus Talip Atalay and other prominent members of the Turkish Cypriot community, which highlighted the U.S. commitment to advancing freedom of religion and interfaith dialogue and reinforced the Secretary of State’s April 12 message that the United States is committed to strong relationships with Muslim communities around the world.

The Ambassador met the Head of Religious Affairs and Mufti of Cyprus, Ahmet Unsal, on October 19 to reiterate U.S. support for religious freedom, encourage Unsal’s participation in the religious leaders’ dialogue, and stress the importance of interfaith cooperation for the Cyprus peace process and building trust between the Greek Cypriot and Turkish Cypriot communities.

Following the posting to YouTube in April of the “techno party” at the Saint Magar Armenian Orthodox Monastery, the Ambassador stated publicly her deep dismay about the incident and expressed support for religious leaders’ call that all places of worship across Cyprus be protected.  She issued a statement that the embassy “strongly condemns the misuse” of the monastery, and “Freedom of worship is a fundamental value, and we echo the call from religious leaders that all places of worship, in use or not, be protected against misuse, vandalism, and desecration.”

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