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U.S. Department of State
Annual Report on International Religious Freedom for 1999

Released by the Bureau for Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor
Washington, DC, September 9, 1999


Section I. Freedom of Religion

The Constitution of the Republic of Cyprus provides for freedom of religion. The basic law in the Turkish Cypriot community also provides for freedom of religion.(1) Turkish Cypriots residing in the south and Greek Cypriots living in the north are allowed to practice their religions.

The 1960 Constitution of the Republic of Cyprus specifies that the Greek Orthodox Church (which is autocephalous and not under the authority of the mainland Greek Orthodox Church) has the exclusive right to regulate and administer its internal affairs and property in accordance with its holy canons and charter. Similarly, the Constitution states that the Turkish Cypriot religious trust, the Vakf (the Muslim institution that 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. No legislative, executive, or other act can contravene or interfere in the Orthodox Church or the Vakf. Accordingly, both the Greek Orthodox Church and the Vakf are tax-exempt with regard to religious activity. According to law, they are required to pay taxes only on strictly commercial activity.

Three other religious groups are recognized in the Constitution: Armenian Orthodox; Maronite Christians; and Latins (Roman

1. Prior to 1974, Cyprus experienced a long period of intercommunal strife between its Greek and Turkish Cypriot communities. In response, the United Nations Force in Cyprus (UNFICYP) began peacekeeping operations in March 1964. The island has been divided since the Turkish military intervention of 1974, following a coup d'etat directed from Greece. Since 1974 the southern part of the island has been under the control of the Government of the Republic of Cyprus. The northern part is ruled by a Turkish Cypriot administration. In 1983 that administration proclaimed itself the "Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus" ("TRNC"), which is recognized only by Turkey. The two parts are separated by a buffer zone patrolled by the UNFICYP. A substantial number of Turkish troops remain on the island.

Catholics). They are exempt from taxes and are eligible, along with the Orthodox Church and the Vakf, for government subsidies to their religious institutions. No other religious group is recognized in the Constitution.

Religions other than the five recognized religions are not required to register with government authorities; however, if they desire to engage in financial transactions, such as maintaining a bank account, they must register as a nonprofit company, and most do so. The registration process involves submission through an attorney of an application that states the purpose of the nonprofit organization and provides the names of the organization's directors. Registration is granted promptly and many religious groups are recognized. Annual reports of the organization's activities are required. Such nonprofit organizations are tax-exempt.

Approximately 96 percent of the population in the government-controlled area are Greek Orthodox. Approximately 0.5 percent are Maronite or Latin, slightly under 0.5 percent are Armenian Orthodox, and 3 percent belong to other groups; the latter category includes small groups of Cypriot Protestants and foreigners of all religious beliefs.

A January 1998 opinion poll indicated that about 48 percent of Greek Cypriots attend church services regularly, while 49 percent attend only for major religious holidays and ceremonies such as weddings and funerals. The remainder does not attend religious services at all. Approximately 10 percent of the population in the north attend religious services regularly.

There are no prohibitions against missionary activity or proselytizing, and there is some Western Protestant missionary activity in the government-controlled area. Although missionaries have the legal right to proselytize in both communities, missionary activities are monitored closely by the Greek Cypriot Orthodox Church and by both Greek Cypriot and Turkish Cypriot authorities. The Orthodox Church is suspicious of any attempts to proselytize among Greek Cypriots. On occasion the Greek Cypriot media has given extensive coverage to the activities of foreign missionaries, creating a chilling effect on those activities. The police may initiate investigations of religious activity based on a citizen's complaint under laws that make it illegal for a missionary to use "physical or moral compulsion" in an attempt to make religious conversions, or when missionaries may be involved in illegal activities that threaten the security of the republic, constitutional or public order, or public health and morals. There are occasional apprehensions under these laws resulting in publicity but no arrests. Foreign missionaries, like all other foreigners, must obtain and periodically renew residence permits in order to live in the country; normally renewal requests are not denied.

The Greek Orthodox religion is taught in all public primary and secondary schools in classes held twice per week in the government-controlled area. Parents can request that their children be excused from such instruction.

There is no government-sponsored ecumenical activity.

Both the Government of Cyprus and the Turkish Cypriot administration have constitutional or legal bars against discrimination. The basic agreement covering treatment of Greek Cypriots and Maronites living in the north and Turkish Cypriots living in the south remains the 1975 Vienna III Agreement. Among other things, this agreement provides for facilities for religious worship.

In the northern part of the island, the Turkish Cypriot basic law refers specifically to a "secular republic," and provides for religious freedom; no specific religion is recognized in the basic law. However, based on the 1960 Constitution, the Turkish Cypriot religious trust (Vakf), which pays the costs of Muslim religious activities and the salaries of Muslim religious leaders, is tax-exempt in regard to its religious activities (the Vakf pays taxes on its commercial and real estate operations) and receives official subsidies. No other religious organization is tax-exempt or receives subsidies.

Ninety-nine percent of the Turkish Cypriot population are at least nominally Muslim. There is a small Turkish Cypriot Baha'i community. Approximately 650 Greek Cypriots and Maronites live in the north. They have freedom of worship, although there are complaints of vandalism of unused Orthodox churches and disagreements related to the assignment of Orthodox priests to work in the north. There are no longer restrictions on the right of Greek Cypriots resident in the north to visit Apostolos Andreas monastery. However, an application to replace a retiring priest has been pending for more than 2 years. Most other non-Muslims in the north are foreigners from Western Europe who are frequently members of the Roman Catholic or Anglican Church.

Religious organizations are not required to register unless they wish to engage in commercial activity or apply for tax-exempt status. There are no legal restrictions on missionary activity; however, such activity is rare and is monitored closely by Turkish Cypriot authorities.

There is instruction in religion, ethics, and comparative religions in two grades of the primary school system. There is no formal Islamic religious instruction in public schools and no state-supported religious schools.

There is no ecumenical activity sponsored by the Turkish Cypriot authorities.

In February 1998, the Turkish Cypriot leadership instituted a new system of crossing fees at the main Nicosia checkpoint. The effect of the new system has been to reduce overall crossings, especially for Maronites visiting from the south, for whom travel previously was free. Following an agreement in 1997 on reciprocal visits to religious sites, a number of visits occurred, although there were no visits to the north in 1998 until September because the Turkish Cypriot authorities were requiring Greek Cypriot visitors to pay the new crossing fee. The Cypriot Government permitted almost 1,300 Turkish Cypriots to make a pilgrimage to a Muslim shrine in the south in February 1998, as well as another 1,300 in April, the largest number since 1974. However, a scheduled Easter 1998 visit by Greek Cypriots to an Orthodox monastery in the north was cancelled because of the fee requirement. In September 1998, a group of approximately 1,300 Greek Cypriots was allowed to visit the monastery without paying the crossing fee. In November 1998, another group of 1,400 Greek Cypriots visited the monastery as well, without paying the fee.

In both the government-controlled areas and the Turkish Cypriot community there was no change in the status of respect for religious freedom during the period covered by this report.

In both the government-controlled areas and the Turkish Cypriot community there were no reports of religious detainees or prisoners.

In both the government-controlled areas and the Turkish Cypriot community there were no reports of the forced religious conversion of minor U.S. citizens who had been abducted or illegally removed from the United States, or of the authorities' refusal to allow such citizens to be returned to the United States.

Section II. Societal Attitudes

There are polite relations between the Greek Cypriot Orthodox Church and the other religious communities in the south. In the north there are few non-Muslims, but there is no friction between them and the nominally Muslim population. There has been little effort at ecumenical activity. In recent years, an international conference on understanding among religions has been sponsored annually by a private foundation in the government-controlled areas; otherwise, there has been little interest in such activities either in the government-controlled areas or the Turkish Cypriot community.

Religion is a significantly more prominent component of Greek Cypriot society than of Turkish Cypriot society, with correspondingly greater cultural and political influence. One example of the relationship between church and state among Greek Cypriots is the fact that the leader of the Greek Cypriot campaign for independence in the 1950's was the head of the Greek Orthodox Church, Archbishop Makarios III, who became President from independence in 1960 until his death in 1977.

As the largest owner of real estate in the south and the operator of several large business enterprises, the Greek Orthodox Church is a significant economic factor. Similarly, the Vakf is the largest landowner in the north.

Section III. U.S. Government Policy

The U.S. Ambassador and other embassy officers have requested Turkish Cypriot authorities to facilitate the assignment of an additional Orthodox priest to the Greek Cypriot population living in the north. The Ambassador and other embassy officers also have met periodically with religious authorities as part of their regular responsibilities.

[End of Document]

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Revised last: 10-09-1999