Last Updated: Wednesday, 24 January 2018, 07:53 GMT

2013 Report on International Religious Freedom - Cyprus: the Area Administered by Turkish Cypriots

Publisher United States Department of State
Publication Date 28 July 2014
Cite as United States Department of State, 2013 Report on International Religious Freedom - Cyprus: the Area Administered by Turkish Cypriots, 28 July 2014, available at: http://www.refworld.org/docid/53d9078a14.html [accessed 24 January 2018]
DisclaimerThis is not a UNHCR publication. UNHCR is not responsible for, nor does it necessarily endorse, its content. Any views expressed are solely those of the author or publisher and do not necessarily reflect those of UNHCR, the United Nations or its Member States.

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 Summary

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. "Laws" in the Turkish Cypriot-administered area generally protect religious freedom; however, some policies restrict religious freedom in practice. Some religious groups, including Greek Orthodox, Armenian Orthodox, and Maronite Catholics, had limited access to their places of worship in the north. Some groups complained that some religious sites were damaged, close to collapse, or had been converted to other uses. Some religious groups reported that the authorities monitored their activities.

There were reports of societal discrimination based on religious affiliation, belief, or practice. Greek Cypriots continued to report that vandals damaged and removed religious icons from vacant Greek Orthodox churches located in the Turkish Cypriot-administered area.

Embassy representatives met with Turkish Cypriot representatives, NGOs, international organizations, and religious leaders to discuss religious freedom issues, including access to religious sites and the ability to hold religious services freely. Embassy staff observed religious ceremonies and visited sites of religious significance.

Section I. Religious Demography

According to the 2011 census by the Turkish Cypriot administration, which contains no data on religious affiliation, the population of the area administered by Turkish Cypriots is 295,000. Sociologists estimate 98 percent of the population is Sunni Muslim. An estimated 10,000 immigrant workers and 8,000 settlers from Turkey of Turkish, Kurdish, and Arab origin are Alevis, 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, 120 Maronite Catholics, 180 Anglicans, 150 mostly expatriate Jews, and 40 Jehovah's Witnesses. There are smaller numbers of Roman Catholics and members of several Protestant denominations, including Pentecostals, Baptists, and Methodists.

Section II. Status of "Government" Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal/Policy Framework

"Laws" in the area administered by Turkish Cypriots generally protect religious freedom; however, some policies restrict religious freedom, particularly for members of the Greek Orthodox, Maronite Catholic, and Armenian Orthodox churches.

The "law" refers specifically to a "secular republic." The "law" does not recognize any specific religion. It states, however, that the Sunni Muslim Vakif, which regulates religious activity for Turkish Cypriots, has the exclusive right to regulate and administer its internal affairs and property in accordance with Vakif laws and principles. The Vakif 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. No other religious group in the area is tax-exempt.

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. Among other provisions, the agreement provides for facilities for religious worship for Greek Cypriots, stating that "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 that Greek Orthodox residents may hold liturgies or Masses conducted by two designated priests at four designated functional churches in the Karpas peninsula without seeking permission. Other religious groups must submit applications for permission to the authorities to hold religious services at churches or monasteries. Permission from the authorities is also necessary for priests other than those officially designated to conduct services. Specific permission is also required for services that include 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 ten days before the date of such religious services and coordinated through the United Nations Peacekeeping Force in Cyprus (UNFICYP).

The "Presidency of the Religious Affairs of Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus" represents Islam in the area administered by the Turkish Cypriots. Under this organization's direction, resident imams may conduct prayers and sermons in mosques.

Religious groups are not required to register with authorities as associations, but only registered associations may engage in commercial activity and maintain bank accounts. 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 conduct religious services.

There is compulsory instruction covering religion, culture, and ethics 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. 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.

"Government" Practices

The Turkish Cypriot administration restricted access to Greek Orthodox, Maronite Catholic, and Armenian Orthodox places of worship and placed other restrictions on minority religious groups.

Greek Orthodox and Maronite Catholics could not freely visit most religious sites located in military zones in the area administered by Turkish Cypriots. Access to the Church of Ayia Marina/Gurpinar, however, was approved for one visit per year and in July the Maronite community visited the church for the first time since 1974. Restoration of the Maronite church in Asomatos/Ozgun was completed in 2012.

The administration denied permission to use certain Christian religious sites, including the Church of Saint Marina in Kythrea, because the church was being used as a cultural center and library. The administration also denied a request to hold a service at the Church of Saint Georgios because the church was being used as a youth center. The administration denied a request to use the church on Panagia Chrysopolitissa without a stated reason, and denied a request to restore tombstones and crosses of the graves at the cemeteries of Pano and Kato Dikomo, also for no stated reason.

The "Presidency of the Religious Affairs of the TRNC" staffed 190-200 mosques with 360 imams. Members of the majority Sunni religious community voiced concerns about such actions interfering with religious affairs.

Reports indicated that Turkish Cypriot authorities did not allocate additional funds beyond 546,430 Turkish lira ($346,000) in 2006 to complete the restoration of 15 Greek Orthodox churches in the north. In addition, authorities stated that some Greek Orthodox and Maronite churches had long been converted to other uses. One religious group complained that religious items were being held in museums against the wishes of the community. The Cultural Heritage Technical Committee members cleaned and carried out minor repairs in ten churches and mosques in both communities by using their combined resources.

As part of the reciprocal religious visit arrangement, in October Turkish Cypriots lifted the travel ban against the Bishop of the Karpas and he entered the north to visit the Apostolos Andreas monastery with the Turkish Cypriot Imam. He returned to perform the liturgy at Apostolos Andreas in November, a ceremony attended by thousands. Religious leaders continued to meet and arrange visits across the "green line."

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 that the police questioned him frequently about his activities. Turkish Cypriot representatives stated that the purpose of the police presence was to provide security and protect religious icons and artifacts; however, religious groups perceived the monitoring as intimidation and harassment.

Turkish Cypriots eased restrictions on holding regular religious services in certain churches, although they did not approve all requests. UNFICYP reported that of the 61 requests made to date, eight were refused on various grounds. One denied request came from Greek Orthodox non-resident worshipers who sought permission to conduct religious service at the Church of Panayia Perghamiotissa in the village of Akanthu on November 17.

The four churches in the primarily Maronite village of Kormakitis and the Maronite church in Karpashia functioned regularly and did not need special permission for any services. Three smaller Maronite churches continued to require special permission to hold services, and one church in Kambyli required a special permit at all times.

In August, the press reported that approximately 250 Maronites held a mass at Panagia Kambyli Church to celebrate Assumption Day at Kambyili/Hisarkoy.

Some non-Sunni Muslims lacked places of worship and funding to construct such facilities. Alevis, which like all non-Sunni Muslim religious groups were recognized by the authorities as an association and not as a religious group, reported that due to the lack of a cem evi (house of worship), they were required to conduct funerals inside mosques, contrary to their traditions. Alevi representatives stated that they felt no pressure and could freely practice their faith; however, they perceived favoritism in "state" funding toward the majority Sunni Muslim population through financing mosque construction and administration of mosques. In April 2012, the Pir Sultan Abdal Association, an Alevi NGO, visited Turkish Cypriot political parties to request support to build a cem evi and to advocate the inclusion of Alevism in the education curriculum. While several of the parties expressed support for the inclusion of Alevism in the education curriculum, there were no reports of further action.

Some minority religious groups complained that their children were still required to complete and pass the religious course which is focused on Islam and is mandatory in public schools. In September, the Hala Sultan Religious High School in Haspolot held a high-profile opening ceremony that was attended by senior Turkish Cypriot representatives and visiting Turkish political figures. At the same time, a groundbreaking ceremony was held for the construction of a large mosque within the same complex. The press reported that the curriculum included the Quran, career Arabic, basic religious knowledge, history of Islam, Islamic law, the prophet's life, interpreting the Quran, and oration. Secular members of the Turkish Cypriot community, unions, and NGOs criticized the opening of the school, saying that Turkey was trying to "Islamize" secular Turkish Cypriots.

In July the secular Turkish Cypriot Teacher Trade Union criticized the then interim "government" for allowing the continuation of Quran courses, despite its policy to abolish such courses.

The "Constitutional Court" held a hearing in October on Turkish Cypriot Murat Kanatli's declaration of conscientious objection to the one-day annual reserve duty requirement. The "court" rejected Kanatli's conscientious objection, stating that reserve duty and military duty were not against the "constitution" and that these were a citizen's duty. The "Constitutional Court" sent the decision to the "Military Court."

The rebuilding of the 200-year-old Greek Orthodox Chapel of Saint Thekla, that had been demolished in 2011, was completed.

"Government" Inaction

The authorities continued to deny the application of a Turkish-speaking Protestant congregation for legal recognition as a religious association with the purpose of conducting religious services, as they had done for the past ten years. The congregation filed a "court" case in 2012 because the group's inability to register as an association prevented it from establishing a trust fund and purchasing property. The congregation used rented space in Kyrenia and Nicosia for religious services.

Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom

There were reports of societal discrimination based on religious affiliation, belief, or practice.

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

Greek Cypriots continued to report that vandals damaged vacant Greek Orthodox churches in the area administered by Turkish Cypriots. According to Turkish Cypriot authorities, police closely investigated all such complaints of vandalism and in some cases have proposed renovations or cleanup of sites.

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

Some religious groups reported that Turkish Cypriot converts from Islam to other religions, particularly Christianity, faced social ostracism and political criticism.

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. These sites, five in each community, included five churches located in the area administered by the Turkish Cypriots. The committee also assumed a coordination and facilitator role for the restoration of the Apostolos Andreas Monastery in the Karpas peninsula. In September the, the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) signed contribution agreements with the Church of Cyprus and the Evkaf Foundation for restoration of the Apostolos Andreas Monastery. 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.

A local newspaper removed a paid advertisement by a Turkish-speaking Protestant representative offering free Bibles. The paper refunded the ad costs and reportedly said it had to pull the advertisement because of "government" pressure.

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy

Embassy representatives met with Turkish Cypriot representatives, NGOs, international organizations, and religious leaders to discuss religious freedom, including access to religious sites and the ability to hold religious services at the sites without restrictions. Embassy staff observed religious ceremonies at Saint Mamas in Morphou and Apostolos Andreas, historically important churches that attracted large numbers of worshippers from the government-controlled area, and visited the Maronite enclave in Kormakitis. Embassy staff worked to ensure that the Armenian Orthodox community is allowed to contribute its views regarding the use of the newly restored Armenian Church and Monastery complex in northern Nicosia.


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