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US State Department presents report on religious freedom, including Cyprus

May 30, 2018 at 9:45am
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The constitution of the Republic of Cyprus prohibits religious discrimination and protects the freedom to worship, teach, and practice one’s religion. This is stated in the annual report of the US State Department on International Religious Freedom that was presented by US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.

Pompeo also announced the organisation by the State Department on the 25th and 26th July of an international conference on religious freedom, in which many countries and international organisations will participate.

The report on Cyprus notes that the constitution prohibits religious discrimination and protects the freedom to worship, teach, and practice one’s religion.

“It grants the Greek Orthodox Church of Cyprus the exclusive right to regulate and administer its internal affairs and recognizes the Vakf, an Islamic institution that manages land Muslims have donated as an endowment for charitable purposes as well as sites of worship”.

It adds that the government granted Turkish Cypriots access to religious sites in the area it controls, including for visits by approximately 2,650 Turkish Cypriots and foreign nationals to Hala Sultan Tekke Mosque on three occasions and that seven of the eight functioning mosques, with the exception of Hala Sultan Tekke, in the government-controlled area were open for all five daily prayers, and six had the necessary facilities for ablutions.

“Despite long-standing requests, the government did not grant permission to the Muslim community to make improvements at mosques,” it says.

Furthermore it says that a representative of the Buddhist community reported authorities raised obstacles to the operation of a temple in a village outside of Nicosia and forced the community to relocate the temple, while in July the government removed a requirement to designate a person’s religion on civil marriage applications and certificates.

The report adds that the ombudsman’s office reported it was investigating new complaints regarding Ministry of Education  regulations for exempting students from religious instruction. “The government required those who objected to military service on
religious grounds to perform alternate service for longer periods”.

It also says that the Jewish community reported incidents of assault, verbal harassment, and vandalism and that some religious minority groups reported pressure to engage in religious ceremonies of majority groups.

Furthermore it says that members of the Greek Orthodox majority reported they sometimes faced social ostracism from the Greek Orthodox community if they converted to another religion, such as Islam, while a hotel reportedly refused to hire Muslim women for a cleaning job because they wore a hijab and that in June a bicommunal working group set up as part of the UN-facilitated settlement talks completed the restoration of Koprulu Mosque in Limassol and Mathiatis Mosque in Nicosia district, and in October the Department of Antiquities completed the restoration of Arnavut Mosque in Limassol.

“The United Nations introduced religious groups and civil society organizations to its “Faith for Rights” initiative, which aimed to strengthen and deepen the connections between religious groups and human rights. The religious and civil society groups reportedly received the initiative positively and discussed ways to engage the public in a dialogue on protecting human rights to promote freedom of religion”.

In addition, it says that leaders of the main religious groups on the island continued to meet and reaffirmed their commitment to the promotion of religious freedom across the island. In October the Office of the Religious Track of the Cyprus Peace Process (RTCYPP) launched a pilot program offering Greek and Turkish language classes for priests, imams, nuns, and laypersons who worked for faith-based organizations.

U.S. embassy staff met with the government, nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), and religious leaders to discuss religious freedom issues, including access to religious sites island-wide and discriminatory treatment of minority religious groups. Embassy officials encouraged religious leaders to continue their dialogue and hold reciprocal visits to places of religious significance on either side of the “green line.”

The report also refers to the Turkish occupied areas of Cyprus.

It says that “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, while it prohibits forced participation in worship and religious services and states religious education may be conducted only under “state” supervision”.

It notes that “it grants the Islamic Vakf, which manages land Muslims have donated as a charitable endowment and sites of worship, the exclusive right to regulate its internal affairs”.

The report says that “Turkish Cypriot authorities continued to restrict access to religious sites. UNFICYP reported that of 112 requests it received to facilitate religious services at churches in the northern part of the island during the year, the illegal regime’s “Ministry of Foreign Affairs” (“MFA”) approved approximately 67. The “MFA” reported that, of 133 total requests (including both UNFICYP-facilitated and non-UNFICYP-facilitated requests) to hold religious services during the year, it approved 83”.

“Alevi Muslims said they lacked places to worship and funding to construct them and that authorities treated them and other religious minorities unequally. In May the “ombudsman” stated the “Ministry of Education” (“MOE”) was violating freedom of religion by imposing mandatory religion courses based on Sunni Islam at schools, without presenting alternatives to non-Sunnis. Some minority religious groups continued to report police surveillance and restrictions of their activities”.

It further says that “the Turkish-Speaking Protestant Association (TSPA) continued to report societal discrimination toward Protestants, and some minority religious groups said Turkish Cypriots who converted to other faiths, particularly Christianity, faced criticism. A pastor of a church whose members were African students reported difficulties in securing a place of worship. The TCCH reported it had completed restoration of eight religious sites and was restoring another seven. The TCCH also reported completing five small cultural heritage activities, including religious sites, and completing project designs for another two sites. Religious leaders such as the mufti and the archbishop continued to promote religious dialogue by meeting and arranging visits to places of worship across the “green line.””.

Concluding, the report says that “U.S. embassy officials met with Turkish Cypriot representatives to discuss access to religious sites and the ability to hold religious services at the sites without restrictions. Embassy officials continued to meet with leaders from different religious groups to discuss freedom of worship and access to religious sites”.

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Source: CNA