Religion

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Legal framework on freedom of religion and actual application

Religious discrimination is prohibited by article 18 of the constitution, which also safeguards the right of individuals to profess their faith, worship, teach and practice or observe their religion, whether individually or collectively, in private or in public. Such rights can only be limited or curtailed on grounds of national security, public health, safety, order, morals, or the protection of civil liberties. The same article of the constitution specifies that all religions are free and equal before the law, so long as their doctrines or rites are not kept secret. Furthermore it safeguards an individual’s right to change his or her religion and prohibits the use of any type of coercion to make a person change, or prevent a person from changing, his or her religion.

As set forth in the constitution (article 110) the autocephalous Greek Orthodox Church of Cyprus has sole responsibility for its internal affairs and property in accordance with its canons and charter. The constitution also sets guidelines for the Muslim community: the Vakf, an Islamic Institution manages sites of worship and regulates religious matters for Turkish Cypriots. It also prohibits legislative, executive, or other acts which contravene or interfere with the Orthodox Church or the Vakf. Three other religious groups are constitutionally recognised: Maronite Catholics, Armenian Orthodox and “Latins” (Roman Catholics, mostly of Cypriot origin), granting them tax exemption and allowing them to apply for government subsidies such as running schools in order to preserve their “cultural identity”.[1]

The most important mosque in Cyprus, the Hala Sultan Tekke Mosque, is administered by the Department of Antiquities. Turkish Cypriots wishing to visit the Mosque were required to submit their requests to the UN Peace Keeping Force, which then liaises with the government.[2]

A bill was drafted which would remove all reference to religious affiliation on civil marriage documents; commissioners regarded the requirement to disclose religious beliefs as a violation of religious freedom. At time of writing the bill is still being debated.[3]

Incidents

Religion and ethnicity can be very closely intertwined in Cyprus making any identification of specific incidents with a clear and unquestionable religious basis highly problematic. However, there were several reports of members of the Jewish community being mocked or assaulted in the streets because of their yarmulkes and long curls.[4]

The Grand Mufti Talip Atalay, a committed advocate of inter-faith dialogue, was arrested for a few days in July 2017, allegedly for his connections to the Fetullah Gülen movement, despite having voiced his opposition to the group’s attempted coup attempt on 15th July 2016. An article in the Cyprus Mail suggested that his detention was part of a power struggle between a conciliatory faction and a Turkish nationalist one. The former ‘Prime Minister’ of Northern Cyprus, Huseyin Ozgurgun, had demanded that president Akinci the removal of the Grand Mufti.[5] The political situation is very complex. Atalay’s attempts to strengthen Islam in the traditionally secularist north have been seen by some as a policy of Islamisation. Atalay argues that this is merely a return to normalisation after an era of anti-religious leftism.[6]

Prospects for freedom of religion

While the religious leaders of Cyprus remain committed to interreligious peace[7] and frequently unite on questions of human rights, for example taking a stand against violence directed towards girls and women,[8] religious freedom is at risk because of the increasing political pressure coming from the Turkish government. Liberal Turkish Cypriotes fear a deterioration of the situation, as a less conciliatory Sunni Islam is being imported to the island by Turkish authorities. Some argue that Northern Cyprus might simply become a Turkish province, which could mean an end to the comparatively cordial relations between religions.[9] The case of Grand Mufti Talip Atalay, noted above, could be a foretaste of this. The future of religious peace rests on a continued dialogue between the different communities.

Endnotes / Sources

[1] Cyprus’s Constitution of 1960 with Amendments through 2013, constituteproject.org, https://www.constituteproject.org/Constitution/Cyprus_2013.pdf?lang=en, (accessed 24th March 2018). The specification which explicitly names the Maronites, Armenians and Latins is to be found in the Cyprus Act of 1960, Appendix E, Statement by her Majesty’s Government on the rights of smaller religious groups in Cyprus, http://unpan1.un.org/intradoc/groups/public/documents/un-dpadm/unpan039703~1.pdf, (accessed 24th March 2018).

[2] Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor, ‘Cyprus’, International Religious Freedom Report for 2016, US State Department, https://www.state.gov/j/drl/rls/irf/religiousfreedom/index.htm#wrapper, (accessed 24th March 2018).

[3] ‘Bill seeks to remove religion from civil marriage documents’, Cyprus Mail, 30th May 2017, http://cyprus-mail.com/2017/05/30/bill-seeks-remove-religion-civil-marriage-documents/, (accessed 24th March 2018).

[4] Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor, op. cit.

[5] Agnieszka Rakoczy, ‘Power struggle to sack Mufti in north’, Cyprus-mail.com, 10th September 2017 http://cyprus-mail.com/2017/09/10/power-struggle-sack-mufti-north/, (accessed 24th March 2018).

[6] Menelaos Hadjicostis, ‘Split over Islam’s rise in Turkish-occupied north of Cyprus’, Kathimerini, 14th November 2017 http://www.ekathimerini.com/223236/article/ekathimerini/news/split-over-islams-rise-in-turkish-occupied-north-of-cyprus, (accessed 24th March 2018).

[7] ‘Religious leaders committed to dialogue, dismayed at state of churches’, Cyprus Mail, 17th November 2017, http://cyprus-mail.com/2017/11/17/religious-leaders-committed-dialogue-dismayed-state-churches/, (accessed 24th March 2018).

[8] ‘Cyprus religious leader’s unite against violence to women‘, Crux, 8th March 2017 https://cruxnow.com/global-church/2017/03/08/cyprus-religious-leaders-unite-violence-women/, (accessed 24th March 2018).

[9] Helena Smith, ‘“We’re not Muslim enough” fear Turkish Cypriots as poll looms’, The Guardian, 6th January 2018, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2018/jan/06/were-not-muslim-enough-fear-turkish-cypriots-as-poll-looms, (accessed 24th March 2018).

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