The Seminar: “An ongoing need for freedom of religion or belief in Cyprus” organised by the Representation of the Church of Cyprus to the European Institutions and the subcommittee of Human rights of the Church and Society Commission of CEC, in Nicosia on the 6th of October 2012, after the end of the meeting issued the following Press release:
“We ask you, therefore, to exercise your influence so that the religious freedom becomes a reality for all people of Cyprus, Greek Cypriots and Turkish Cypriots” appealed His Beatitude Chrysostomos II, the Archbishop of Cyprus, speaking in a seminar on the theme “An ongoing need for freedom of religion or belief in Cyprus” on 5 October 2012 in Nicosia, Cyprus. The meeting was organized by the Representation of the Church of Cyprus to the European Institutions and the Church and Society Commission of CEC and hosted by the Church of Cyprus. This was an open public seminar on freedom of religion or belief which brought Greek and Turkish Cypriots together.
In her opening statement, Minister of the Interior Ms Eleni Mavrou noted that religious diversity on the island has developed due to the increasing immigration in the past years which brought new religious communities to Cyprus. She expressed the need for dialogue between churches and religious communities.
In the seminar the Head of the Maronite Church as well as representatives of the Church of Cyprus, the Armenian Apostolic, the Anglican churches and of the Grand Mufti of Cyprus expressed their views and voiced their concerns on freedom of religion or belief in the divided island. Their views were responded to by representatives of European institutions Prof Dr Martin Selmayr, Head of Cabinet of Vice-President Viviane Reding, for Justice, Fundamental Rights and Citizenship, Mrs Angelika Werthmann, MEP from Austria and Mr Peter Weiderud, the President of the Religious Social Democrats of Sweden and Facilitator of the official dialogue of the religious heads of the island on the Cyprus peace process.
Even though people have been able to visit religious sites since the unilateral opening of the crossing points in 2003, freedom of movement and access to places of worship remains a major concern in Cyprus. Holy places should be open to worship without restrictions, stressed the speakers. In the northern occupied part of the country, there is only a small minority of Christians. Churches and cemeteries are destroyed, in poor condition or turned for example to mosques, cultural centres or storehouses. Church clergy have limited presence in the area and restrictions on holding religious services continue. His Grace Bishop Porfyrios of Neapolis invited for a more active intervention by the European Commission and the European Parliament to bring about the reinstatement of religious freedom in the north of the island as we all have a duty and an obligation to those who are suffering and to global civilization and culture.
His Excellency Şakir Alemdar, Imam of Hala Sultan Tekke Mosque in Larnaca, representing the Grand Mufti of Cyprus Dr Talip Atalay thanked the Republic of Cyprus for the maintenance of the mosques but raised his concern about the way they are administered in the Republic of Cyprus. He highlighted the current museum opening hours of Hala Sultan Tekke which prevent Muslims from praying five times a day in the mosque.
“Limitations of freedom of religion have to be very well justified”, recalled Dr Martin Selmayr, Head of Cabinet of the EU Justice Commissioner at European Commission. The European Union has started a new form of cooperation with the Government of the Republic of Cyprus for preserving cultural heritage sites on the island.
Archbishop Varoujan Hergelian from the Armenian Apostolic Church of Cyprus said: “We look forward to the day that we will all be able to freely hold Holy Mass and Religious Ceremonies in all the Churches of Cyprus; live in Peace and Harmony together with all our fellow compatriots and collectively enjoy the right to Religious Freedom and Liberty."
“Cyprus has the capacity and the ability taken / deriving from its history, culture, sufferings and witness to be a model and prototype in Europe today regarding the dialogue of life”, visioned His Eminence Youssef Soueif, the Maronite Archbishop of Cyprus. “May this region demonstrate that coexistence is not a utopia, and that distrust and prejudice are not a foregone conclusion.”
Mrs Katsatoni Georgia representing the Anglican Church of Cyprus and Gulf, saw that one way forward is to enter into a listening process, where people from different communities can learn from each other’s experience and try to understand each other’s needs.
In the discussion it was stressed that ensuring freedom of religion is a precondition to the solution of the Cyprus problem, not a consequence of it. The Seminar heard that for the first time in decades the main religious leaders of the Greek and Turkish Cypriot community are engaged in a dialogue facilitated by the President of the Swedish Religious Social Democrats and are working on establishing the first Inter-Religious Council for Peace in Cyprus. MEP Mrs Angelika Werthmann suggested the establishment of an inter-religious bi-communal working group to handle issues related to freedom of religion.
The speakers underlined the importance of bringing young people together to learn about tolerance, peaceful coexistence and respect for human rights. It is vital to build up bonds between people in everyday life. Religious communities have an important role in promoting dialogue at the grassroots level. The representatives of the churches and religious communities of Cyprus reiterated their commitment to promote dialogue and focus on the youth. They were encouraged to witness the initial but hopeful steps of the first ever Cypriot inter faith youth network for peace supported by the Archbishop of the Church of Cyprus and the Grand Mufti of the island.
Ms Eleni Mavrou, Minister of Interior of the Republic of Cyprus
His Beatitude the Archbishop of Nova Justiniana and All Cyprus Chrysostomos II
His Eminence Youssef Soueif, Maronite Archbishop of Cyprus
His Eminence Archbishop Varoujan Hergelian, His Grace Armenian Archbishop of Cyprus
His Excellency Imam Şakir Alemdar, of Hala Sultan Tekke Mosque and Representative of the Grand Mufti of Cyprus Dr Talip Atalay
His Grace Bishop Porfyrios of Neapolis, Representative of the Church of Cyprus to European Institutions
Rev. Arch. Benedict Ioannou, Church of Cyprus
Church and Society Commission of CEC’s Human Rights Working Group Mag. Elizabeta Kitanovic, Executive Secretary for Human Rights and Communication - Church and Society Commission of CEC
Prof. Dr Martin Selmayr, Head of Cabinet of Vice-President Viviane Reding, for Justice, Fundamental Rights and Citizenship
Mrs Angelika Werthmann, MEP Austria
Mr Peter Weiderud, President Religious Social Democrats of Sweden
Rev. Thorsten Leißer, Executive Secretary Human Rights and Migration Issues, EKD
Ms Salpy Eskidjian, Senior Adviser and Project Coordinator of the Religious Track of the Cyprus Peace Process under the Auspices of the Embassy of Sweden
Dr Peter Krömer, Evangelische-Lutherische Kirche A.B. in Austria
Mrs Xenia Constantinou, Representative from the Youth of Cyprus