State Department: Free access to religious mosques for the Turkish Cypriots during 2015

State Department: Free access to religious mosques for the Turkish Cypriots during 2015

The government of the Republic of Cyprus granted in 2015 to Turkish Cypriots access to religious sites in the government-controlled area, including for visits by approximately 1,000 Turkish Cypriots and foreign nationals to Hala Sultan Tekke Mosque on three occasions, the US State Department 2015 International Religious Freedom Report says.

It notes that eight mosques in the government controlled areas were open and six of those were available for all five daily prayers and had the necessary facilities for ablutions, while others lacked some facilities. Furthermore, it says that the government did not grant permission to religious groups to make upgrades at mosques and that Muslim community leaders stated that the government had not granted them full access to mosques located on cultural heritage sites and denied them any administrative authority over sites.

According to the State Department report, released on Wednesday, the Technical Committee on Cultural Heritage (TCCH), one of the bicommunal working groups set up as part of the UN-facilitated settlement talks, identified cultural heritage sites throughout the island in need of emergency preservation measures. These sites included seven churches and monasteries in the north and four mosques in the government-controlled area. In March the TCCH announced the completion of emergency preservation works at the Evretou Mosque and the Tzerkezoi Mosque in the government-controlled area.

Moreover, the leaders of the main religious groups on the island continued to meet and visit places of worship across the “green line.” The religious leaders had their first joint meeting with the political leaders of the Greek Cypriot and Turkish Cypriot communities.

The Jewish community, as it is noted, reported incidents of assault, verbal harassment, and vandalism. Some religious minority groups reported pressure to engage in religious ceremonies of majority groups. Members of the Greek Orthodox majority sometimes faced social ostracism from the Greek Orthodox community if they converted to another religion, including Islam.

According to the report, the Ombudsman reported in June that her office had examined four complaints she had received in 2014 related to the implementation of the Ministry of Education’s policy on religious freedom in education.

She concluded, after examining the four complaints, the Ministry of Education followed practices that did not safeguard the state’s neutrality and obstructed freedom of religion, thought, expression, and conscience, which created it is added.

“Following consultations with the ombudsman, the Ministry issued a new circular amending the policy on exemptions. The ombudsman objected to the circular because it required applicants to state their religion,” it is noted.

The ombudsman’s office reported that it continued to receive complaints after the implementation of the new policy and sent a letter to the Ministry of Education pointing out the problematic aspects of the new policy. The ombudsman continued to monitor this issue.

Moreover it is noted that the government approved the registration of a Buddhist organization as a nonprofit organization in July 2015, while representatives of the Jewish community reported incidents of assault, verbal harassment, and vandalism directed against people with yarmulkes and payot (hair side curls).

As regards the Turkish occupied areas of Cyprus, it points out that neither the United States nor any other country, barring Turkey, recognizes the “TRNC” (self-styled Turkish Cypriot regime in the occupied areas). The State Department said that the UN peace keeping force (UNFICYP) reported that the number of Christian pilgrims, allowed access to religious sites, rose during the year.

It added that the Turkish Cypriot authorities approved 88 of 128 requests received through UNFICYP for access to Greek Orthodox, Maronite Catholic, and Armenian Orthodox places of worship in the north.

Turkish Cypriot authorities reported they allowed church services for the first time in more than 40 years at 14 locations, while some minority religious groups reported police surveillance of their activities and political criticism of Turkish Cypriot converts to other faiths, particularly Christianity.

As it is noted, Turkish troops limited access to Maronite villages and churches in Turkish military zones while some religious groups reported Turkish Cypriot converts from Islam to other religions, particularly Christianity, faced social ostracism.

Cyprus has been divided since 1974, when Turkish troops invaded and occupied 37% of its territory.