2018 Report on International Religious Freedom: Cyprus: Area Administered by Turkish Cypriots

Executive Summary

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

IN THIS SECTION: REPUBLIC OF CYPRUS | AREA ADMINISTERED BY TURKISH CYPRIOTS (BELOW)


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.  The “constitution” grants the Islamic Vakf the exclusive right to regulate its internal affairs.  The “government” began allowing mosques to teach summer religious education classes without its prior approval and said it would allow secondary school students to opt out of Sunni Islam classes.  There were reports of detention of persons with alleged ties to the so-called “Fethullah Gulen Terrorist Organization (FETO).”  Authorities improved access to Greek Orthodox religious sites.  The “Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA)” said it approved 118 of 153 total requests to hold religious services during the year.  Greek Orthodox, Maronite, and Turkish-Speaking Protestant Association (TSPA) representatives continued to report police surveillance of their activities.

The TSPA said Turkish Cypriots who converted to other faiths experienced societal criticism.  The TCCH reported it completed restoration of 10 religious sites.  Religious leaders such as Mufti of Cyprus Atalay and Archbishop of the Church of Cyprus Chrysostomos met throughout the year and arranged visits to places of worship across the “green line.”  The RTCYPP published a letter with statements from Mufti Atalay and Greek Orthodox Bishop of Neapolis Porfyrios calling on Turkish Cypriot authorities to return icons stored in the Kyrenia Castle to the Greek Orthodox community.

In March the U.S. Ambassador met with Mufti of Cyprus Atalay, who was also head of the “Religious Affairs Department,” to discuss interfaith dialogue and access to religious sites.  U.S. embassy officials met with representatives at the “presidency” and “MFA” to discuss unrestricted access to religious sites.  In November the Ambassador attended a Maronite celebration at St. George Church in Kormakitis/Korucam.  Embassy officials continued to meet with leaders from Sunni and Alevi Muslim, Armenian and Greek Orthodox, Maronite, Roman Catholic, and Protestant communities to discuss freedom of worship, access to religious sites, and instances of religious-based discrimination.

Section I. Religious Demography

According to 2011 census information from the Turkish Cypriot authorities, which was the most recent data available, the population of the area administered by Turkish Cypriots is 286,000.  The census contains no data on religious affiliation.  Sociologists estimate as much as 97 percent of the population is Sunni Muslim, of whom 500 are members of the Naqshbandi Sufi order.  According to the Alevi Culture Association, an estimated 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 estimated 320 members of the Church of Cyprus and 73 Maronite Catholics resided in the area administered by Turkish Cypriots.  According to sociologists, other groups include Russian Orthodox, Anglicans, Baha’is, Jews, and Jehovah’s Witnesses.  According to “Ministry of Education (MOE)” statistics for the 2016-17 academic year, there were slightly more than 90,000 foreign students enrolled at universities in the area administered by the Turkish Cypriots.  Of these, 61 percent were Muslim Turks, and the rest were predominantly Christians and Muslims from more than 140 different 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, condemnation based on religious beliefs, and compelling individuals to disclose their religious beliefs.  It stipulates religious education may only be conducted under “state” supervision.  In November 2017, “parliament” amended the “law” to allow summer religious knowledge courses to be taught in mosques without “MOE” approval.  The “law” does not 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.  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.  According to the “constitution,” the 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, stating 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 or masses led by two priests designated by the Orthodox Church at three designated functional churches in the Karpas Peninsula Maronite 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.  A Maronite representative, however, said Turkish Cypriot authorities allowed services at Panagia Church without prior permission only on August 15.

Greek Orthodox, Maronite Catholic, and Armenian Orthodox worshippers must submit applications to the authorities for permission to hold religious services at churches or monasteries other than these six designated churches.  For the authorities to consider an application the date should be of significance to that religious group; the church or monastery must be structurally sound; it must not be located in a military zone; and it must not have a dual use, for example, as a museum.  Permission is also necessary for priests other than those officially predesignated to conduct services.  Specific permission is required for Cypriots who do not reside in the Turkish Cypriot-administered area, such as 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 “Religious Affairs Department” represents Islam in the area administered by Turkish Cypriots.  Whereas the Vakf manages Muslim-donated land as an endowment for charitable purposes, the “Religious Affairs Department” oversees how imams conduct prayers and deliver sermons in mosques.

Religious groups are not required to register with authorities as associations in order 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 groups and nonreligious groups have the same registration process and 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 their 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.  In September the “MOE” announced it would allow students to opt out of mandatory religion courses in grades six through eight, in response to a 2017 report by the “ombudsman.”  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 12-15-month initial service period and one-day annual reserve duty.

"Government" Practices

There were reports of detention of persons with alleged ties to “FETO” and the deportation to Turkey of Turkish citizens purportedly affiliated with “FETO.”

Authorities granted improved access to Greek Orthodox places of worship compared to the previous year.  Contrary to reports in earlier years, Apostolos Andreas, St. Barnabas, and St. Mamas Churches required advanced notification to conduct religious services.  The three churches, however, were open for prayers throughout the year, as they had been in previous years.  During the year services took place for the first time since 1974 at 10 Greek Orthodox churches, according to the “MFA.”

UNFICYP reported the “MFA” approved 90 of 123 requests it received to facilitate religious services at churches in the northern part of the island during the year, compared with 67 approvals of 112 requests in 2017.  The “MFA” reported it approved 118 of 153 total requests (including both UNFICYP-facilitated requests and requests submitted directly to the “MFA”) to hold religious services during the year, compared with 83 approvals of 133 requests in 2017.  A Greek Orthodox Church representative said Turkish Cypriot authorities typically denied access requests without explanation.  Greek Orthodox and Armenian Orthodox representatives said the “MFA” frequently approved applications with insufficient time before the dates of requested religious services, resulting in cancellations.  A Greek Orthodox representative stated 63 religious sites remained inaccessible due to being located within Turkish military zones or the buffer zone.

Heavy police escorts continued to accompany visiting Greek Orthodox and Maronite worshippers.  Turkish Cypriot authorities said the escorts were to provide security; Greek Orthodox and Maronite officials expressed concern they also surveilled worshippers.

In April after a two-year restriction, Turkish Cypriot authorities allowed Greek Orthodox Church members to hold Good Friday church services at St. George Church in Famagusta.

In June Greek Cypriots received permission to hold a two-day religious ceremony at St. Barnabas Monastery.  Local press reported large crowds at the Mass and extensive security measures around the monastery, which a Greek Orthodox official said ensured the service took place without incident.

According to a representative of the Maronite community, the Turkish military increased restrictions on access to Maronite churches located within Turkish military zones.  Maronite representatives reported that, since January, they had been required to submit a list of persons planning to attend Sunday services by the preceding Tuesday, and the Turkish military had refused access to some members.  Previously the Maronite community had not had to seek permission to hold Sunday services at the Maronite Church of Archangelos Michael in the village of Asomatos/Ozhan, which was located within a Turkish military zone.  The Turkish military again allowed Maronites to celebrate Mass once a year in the Church of Ayia Marina and denied Maronites access to the Church of Marki near Kormakitis/Korucam.

Armenian Orthodox representatives said limitations on access imposed by Turkish Cypriot authorities prevented them from fully renovating and maintaining the Sourp Magar Monastery.

The TSPA again reported police visited the association on a monthly basis and that some of its members were afraid to attend religious services due to police monitoring; TSPA representatives visited homes where members held services instead.  The TSPA reported police requested a list of attendees at a prayer service held with Greek Cypriot Protestants in the buffer zone.  The TSPA reported it successfully opened an office in Famagusta after authorities prevented it from doing so the previous two years.

The Alevi Culture Association said the “government” provided six million Turkish lira ($1.14 million) to build a cemevi (house of worship) and Alevi cultural complex outside Nicosia.  Construction began in August, and the association expected it to be completed by July 2019.  The Alevi Culture Association continued to say it perceived favoritism in “state” funding toward the Sunni Muslim population through financing of mosque construction and administration.

In January a group of teachers at Hala Sultan Religious High School filed a complaint with the “MOE” stating vocational teachers from Turkey were putting religious pressure on students, including by encouraging students to attend prayers at the mosque and promoting religious camps in Turkey.  The “MOE” assigned an inspector to investigate the claims, but a union representative said the “MOE” had not announced the findings of the investigation.

In June several parents objected to the “MOE director’s” decision not to sign Hala Sultan Religious High School student diplomas that included photos of students wearing headscarves in accordance with “MOE regulations.”  According to a teachers’ union representative, the “MOE director” ultimately signed the diplomas and the teacher-parent association at Hala Sultan Religious High School subsequently held a second diploma ceremony for the affected students.

The “Religious Affairs Department” continued to appoint and fund imams at the 192 Sunni mosques in the northern part of the island.

A representative of the Church of Cyprus again stated some religious sites, to which Church officials had little or no access, were deteriorating.  In August local press reported Ayia Pareskevi Church located in the open area of Maras/Varosha collapsed due to neglect.

Greek Orthodox religious groups continued to complain 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.  In October local press reported that Greek Orthodox icons stored in the Kyrenia Castle were deteriorating due to improper preservation.

Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom

The TCCH reported it had completed restoration of 10 religious sites and was restoring another two sites.  The TCCH and the UN Development Program Partnership for the Future continued restoration work at the Greek Orthodox Apostolos Andreas Monastery in the Karpas Peninsula, a popular destination for pilgrims.  After an initial delay in the technical designs, the tender for the second phase of the project, including the restoration of the small chapel, surrounding buildings, and environmental landscaping, closed in October and restoration was expected to begin in early 2019.

In October the TCCH visited the Kyrenia Castle and assessed the icons there were generally in good condition, but it announced it would seek funding to install a climate control system to better preserve them.

In October local press reported the Vakf helped clean a Greek Orthodox cemetery in Iskele/Trikomo.  Press also reported the Iskele “Municipality” would establish another cemetery for non-Muslim residents in the region.

The TSPA continued to report societal discrimination toward Protestants, including denial of access to venues to hold religious events and verbal harassment.  The TSPA said Turkish Cypriots who converted to other faiths, particularly Christianity, faced societal criticism.  The TSPA reported its members received social pressure not to attend a November prayer service with Greek Cypriots in the buffer zone.

Muslim and Orthodox religious leaders continued to promote religious tolerance by meeting and arranging pilgrimages for their congregations to places of worship across the “green line,” such as Hala Sultan Tekke in the Republic of Cyprus and St. Barnabas in the area administered by Turkish Cypriots.  In October the RTCYPP published a letter with statements from the Mufti of Cyprus and the Greek Orthodox Bishop of Neapolis calling on Turkish Cypriot authorities to return icons stored in the Kyrenia Castle to the Greek Orthodox community.

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement

In March the U.S. Ambassador met with Mufti of Cyprus Atalay to encourage interfaith dialogue and discuss access to religious sites on both sides of the island.  U.S. embassy representatives continued to meet with Turkish Cypriot authorities at the “Presidency” and the “MFA” to discuss access to religious sites and the ability to hold religious services at sites without restrictions.

In November the Ambassador attended a celebration with the Maronite community at St. George Church in Kormakitis/Korucam.  Embassy officials also discussed issues pertaining to religious freedom, including access to sites of worship and instances of societal discrimination within the Turkish Cypriot community, with representatives of the Armenian Orthodox, Alevi Muslim, Latin Catholic, Greek Orthodox, Maronite, Protestant, and Sunni Muslim communities.  For example, embassy officials frequently discussed with Greek Orthodox leaders concerns about the restrictions Turkish Cypriot authorities placed on church ceremonies conducted in the area administered by Turkish Cypriots.


IN THIS SECTION: REPUBLIC OF CYPRUS | AREA ADMINISTERED BY TURKISH CYPRIOTS (ABOVE)

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 long-standing U.S. policy.