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Statements Special Procedures

Statement at the conclusion of the visit to Cyprus by the Special Rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief from 29 March to 5 April 2012

05 April 2012

5 April 2012

I. The purpose of the visit

From 29 March to 5 April 2012, I have undertaken a visit to Cyprus in my capacity as United Nations Special Rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief. From the day of my arrival onward I have felt very welcome here, and throughout the visit I have greatly enjoyed the proverbial Cypriot hospitality. I would also like to thank UNFICYP for its logistic support in relation to the visit. Furthermore, I am indebted to my interlocutors from different parts of the country, various authorities and sectors of society as well as different religious communities who helped me to better understand the complexities of Cyprus. The numerous discussions we had in the capital as well as in various cities and villages both in the south and the north of the island generally took place in an open atmosphere, and I enormously benefited from the experiences and assessments shared with me.

The purpose of my visit is to get as comprehensive as possible a picture of the situation of freedom of religion or belief on the entire island. Given the complexities of the situation in Cyprus, this requires intensive discussions which, of course, go well beyond the eight days of the actual visit here. Thus, the end of this visit is not the end of my assessment. Indeed, preparations had already started last year, and research and communication will continue afterwards. I will submit my final report to the United Nations Human Rights Council at the end of this year and then it will become publicly available on the website of the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights in Geneva. I would like to emphasise that what I can present today, at the conclusion of this country visit, are only preliminary findings, not my final country report.

Given my mandate as Special Rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief, the visit has been undertaken from that specific thematic perspective. Freedom of religion or belief has the normative rank of a universal human right which is enshrined in international human rights law, in particular article 18 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. The starting point for understanding freedom of religion or belief is the due “recognition of the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family”, to cite from the mother document of international human rights protection, the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights. From this it follows that freedom of religion or belief has a normative rank prior to, and independent of, membership in any particular community, citizenship or any other personal status issues. At the same time, human rights, including the right to freedom of religion or belief, also have their insurmountable limitations. For all their significance as “the foundation of freedom, justice and peace”, to once again quote from the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, they do not cover – let alone give sufficient answers to – all important questions of justice, including historical justice.

II. The overall impression regarding freedom of religion or belief

As everyone knows, the situation in Cyprus is very complex. After in-depth discussions with many individuals and groups living here, I have to say it is even much more complex than I had anticipated. Thus formulating an overall impression of the situation of freedom of religion or belief in Cyprus is a true challenge.

In spite of otherwise conflicting perspectives, virtually everyone I have spoken with agreed that the current political tensions in Cyprus are not in reality rooted in religious differences per se. Over centuries, people of different religious orientations – in particular Christians and Muslims – by and large lived peacefully side by side, an accomplishment which surprisingly seems to have survived, to a certain degree, the various political crises and conflicts that have torn the country. Rather, political tensions which continue to affect the country may have an impact on the full enjoyment of freedom of religion or belief for everyone, as well as on the relationship between various religious communities, since ethnic and religious affiliations largely overlap and are even seen by many as being inextricably intertwined.

Almost all of my interlocutors agreed that the situation has clearly improved in recent years, which has also had a positive impact on the enjoyment of freedom of religion or belief. This has chiefly to do with the opening of a number of crossing points since 2003 which allows people – albeit not all of them – to more or less freely move and have access to religious sites, including churches, mosques and cemeteries, previously inaccessible to them. In particular members of religious minorities who used to live in a situation of isolation over years can now be in contact with family members, friends and community members from whom they had been separated over decades.

I have heard moving stories about family re-unification and people surprisingly discovering common ties with others when visiting their traditional villages. I was told that the opening of the crossing points nine years ago fortunately did not lead to increased physical violence between the communities. This in itself is a very positive phenomenon, given the traumatic history of war, expulsion and continuing deprivation of property as well as destruction and desecration of religious sites.

The overall picture of the country is largely shaped by the reality of bi-communalism which has its repercussions also for the situation of freedom of religion or belief. The basic features of bi-communalism had already been enshrined in the 1960 Constitution of the Republic of Cyprus. With regard to religion, bi-communalism mainly refers to the Greek Orthodox Church and Islam, but the 1960 Constitution also explicitly mentions the Armenians, Maronites and Latins who have associated themselves with the Greek Cypriot community. While this understanding of bi-communalism reflects an historic and contemporary reality, religious diversity on the island has developed beyond the confines of this concept. For example, migrants, settlers and their descendants have altered the religious landscape in both the north and the south, and new religious communities have arrived on the island. I have also heard about disagreements between secular-minded people and more conservative religious believers.

III. On the situation of different religious communities

While Greek Orthodox Christians constitute by far the largest religious community on the island, their members in the north have dwindled to a small minority of only a few hundred people. When visiting their villages, I saw the poor condition of derelict churches and manifestations of vandalism in a cemetery where crosses and tombstones had been broken. One of the issues brought forward was the limited presence of Greek Orthodox priests in the area. There were also reports of intimidation by police taking photos and videos of worshippers. Unsettled property issues and fear of deprivation continue to cause bitterness. At the same time, members of the Greek Orthodox minority in the north opined that their condition has improved in the last years, owing also to the opening of the crossing points between south and north. Moreover, restrictions on holding religious services in churches – although still existing – have been relaxed.

Members of the Maronites in the north, who constitute a tiny minority, emphasised their good relations with members of other communities and denominations living in the vicinity. After the opening of crossing points, many Maronites residing in the south travel regularly to their villages in the north, in particular on weekends and during holidays. At the same time, the Maronites in the north raised the issue of some ongoing restrictions. For instance, they do not have regular access to some of their traditional churches and monasteries which are located on military compounds.

Reportedly, no members of the Latin and Armenian communities currently reside in villages in the north. I visited the Armenian monastery St. Makar which, after decades of neglect, is in very poor condition and partially even inaccessible. Some of the traditional places of worship of the Armenians are currently under restoration with funding from the international community, and hopefully these sites will in future be used also for religious purposes.

Muslims in the south comprise not only Turkish Cypriots but also migrants mainly from Arab and South-Asian backgrounds. Concern was expressed about the lack of religious education and inadequate funding for the maintenance of mosques and cemeteries. Furthermore, the current museum opening hours of the famous Hala Sultan Tekke in Larnaca effectively prevent Muslims from praying five times a day in this mosque. I was also told that not all Muslims living in the north were able to visit the Hala Sultan Tekke or other mosques in the south.
Religious communities outside of the remit of bi-communalism – such as Anglicans, Protestants of different denominations, Buddhists, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Baha’is and others – generally receive little attention, although their members altogether account for tens of thousands of people living in Cyprus. In general, they can practice their religion freely. However, I was informed about problems concerning the construction of religious buildings for which licenses in some cases had been pending for many years. In addition, acquiring land for new cemeteries or using the municipal burying grounds has proved to be difficult for some religious minorities. Religious personnel from abroad also face challenges of cumbersome procedures to renew their short-term visas in Cyprus. In addition, there have been cases where people seeking asylum on religious grounds have been deported to their countries of origin despite serious risks of religious persecution.

IV. Other important issues

A sensitive issue mentioned in many discussions in the south concerns school education, in particular religious instruction based on the tenets of a particular faith. I was told that Orthodox Christianity is taught as part of the mandatory curriculum in public schools. Students or parents can apply for having an exemption which is generally granted. However, due to lack of rooms or resources in certain schools, it may occur that children exempted from religious instruction still remain in the classroom, which means that in practice they may still be exposed to a religious instruction against their conviction. Similar problems seem to arise in the context of confessions to a priest organised in public schools and taking place during school hours.
In the north, there have been public debates on the question of mandatory religious and moral instruction, largely based on Islamic teachings, in public schools. To my knowledge, parents or students do not have an option to get an exemption, which would be an aggravating factor in this context.

Conscientious objection to military service is also part of freedom of thought, conscience, religion or belief. In the north, there seems to be no legal provision dealing with issue, which means that conscientious objectors face the risk of punitive actions. In the south, new legislation provides for the right to conscientious objection, even though the duration of alternative service by far exceeds the duration of military service.

V. Preliminary recommendations

While my final country report will include a more detailed analysis and list of recommendations, I would like to conclude this preliminary statement by flagging the following overarching recommendations:

  • Access to places of worship should be guaranteed as part of freedom of religion or belief for all religious or belief communities.
  • Bi-communal efforts, for example the commendable work done by the bi-communal technical committee on cultural heritage, should be fostered.
  • Inter-religious communication, especially at the grass-roots levels, should be encouraged and promoted.
  • Any education in public schools that includes instruction in a particular religion or belief must provide for non-discriminatory and effective exemptions or alternatives that would accommodate the convictions of the parents and children.
  • School education should include fair information on the diversity of religions and beliefs thus promoting multi-perspectivity.