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Noting Cyprus’ religious diversity, UN expert calls for more inter-faith dialogue

Special Rapporteur on the freedom of religion or belief Heiner Bielefeldt.
UN Photo/Jean-Marc Ferré
Special Rapporteur on the freedom of religion or belief Heiner Bielefeldt.

Noting Cyprus’ religious diversity, UN expert calls for more inter-faith dialogue

A United Nations independent expert today highlighted religious diversity in Cyprus, noting its complexity and putting forward recommendations on how to guarantee freedom of belief to its citizens and foster inter-faith dialogue among all communities in the country.

The UN Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion and Belief, Heiner Bielefeldt, said religious issues in Cyprus tend to be oversimplified by ‘bi-communalism,’ a term which refers to the Greek Orthodox Church and Islam, as well as to the Greek-Cypriot and Turkish-Cypriot communities.

“The overall picture of Cyprus is largely shaped by the reality of bi-communalism which also has repercussions for the situation of freedom of religion or belief, but the religious situation in the country is much more complex than this focus on the two main ethnic groups and two main religions suggests,” said Mr. Bielefeldt, who just completed the first ever visit to Cyprus by a special rapporteur.

Independent experts, or special rapporteurs, are appointed by the Geneva-based human Rights Council to examine and report back on a country situation or a specific human rights theme. The positions are honorary and the experts are not United Nations staff, nor are they paid for their work.

In addition to bi-communalism, Mr. Bielefeldt said that Cyprus’ 1960 Constitution also mentions Armenians, Maronites and Latins, who have associated themselves with the Greek Cypriot community, adding to the complexity of the religious landscape in the country.

“While the general understanding of ‘bi-communalism’ reflects historic and contemporary realities, there is more religious diversity on the island than this concept suggests,” the expert said. “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.”

Mr. Bielefeldt noted that even though the situation of freedom of religion in Cyprus is complex, the people he spoke with during his visit agreed that “the current political tensions in Cyprus are not in reality rooted in religious differences.” Rather, political tensions which continue to affect the country may have an impact on freedom of religion or belief for everyone, as well as on the relationship between various religious communities.

The Special Rapporteur expressed concern over the condition of places of worship in the country, and recommended that access to them be guaranteed to all communities. He also noted that there is a lack of religious education and inadequate funding for the maintenance of mosques and cemeteries.

Among the recommendations made by Mr. Bielefeldt during his visit, which ended today, are that the Government foster inter-religious communication, especially at the grass-roots level; ensure religious education in public schools is non-discriminatory and offers alternatives that would accommodate the convictions of the parents and children; and, provide information on the diversity of religions and beliefs in schools to promote multiple perspectives.