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Cyprus Cyprus Talks

New ground rules to hamper religious services in north

Cyprus' religious leaders (CM archives)

THE ‘cabinet’ in the north has laid down new ground rules specifying when Greek Cypriot requests for religious ceremonies in the occupied areas would be granted, according to Turkish Cypriot media reports, prompting opposition voices to say this could jeopardise the current process of the talks.

According to Yeni Duzen, after a 3.5 hour meeting, ‘prime minister’ Huseyin Ozgurgun said that there has been a “serious and deliberate increase” in the demands made by Greek Cypriots for religious services in churches in the north. For this reason, he said, the regime re-examined the process of granting permissions for such services.

The new criteria, he said, specify that the religious services should coincide with an important religious day, and for the physical situation of the church for which a permit will be sought must be in a safe state so that people’s lives are not threatened. Furthermore, a permission will be granted if the church is not already being used for any other purpose and if it is not located in a military zone.

Ozgurgun said that religious freedoms are respected in the regime, within the framework of the understanding of a secular state, and that it secures the necessary conditions for everyone exercising his or her religious rights.

Some churches, he said, have been turned into political symbols and that as long as the current non-solution (status quo) exists, the need emerges “to take measures” on these issues.

He said that these arrangements were implemented because religious freedoms have been used as a means for political exploitation.

Furthermore, Ozgurgun claimed that the regime has never exploited politically the limitations allegedly implemented by the Republic of Cyprus as to the exercise of the religious duties of Turkish Cypriots in Muslim religious sites located in the government-controlled areas.

The issue, he said, will be raised if the limitations at places of worship and the political initiatives for Turkish Cypriots who cross to the south, continue.

The administration’s decision stirred reactions from the opposition. Yeni Duzen quoted Erkut Sahalli, a deputy of the Republican Turkish Party-United Forces (CTP-BG) as saying during an assembly that he disagreed with the administration’s decision as this would be a negative step for the solution.

Sahalli was reported as saying that the arrangements for religious sites of both communities are of great importance during the negotiation process, and in particular the confidence building seasures (CBMs).

He added that it is very important for both communities to respect the religious and cultural activities of each other, Yeni Duzen reported.

In 2015, Sahalli said that Greek Cypriot applications to conduct religious ceremonies in the north totalled 128, of which 96 had been granted. He added that so far this year, 54 applications had been accepted and 16 rejected.

“A standard procedure should be followed on a technical level and a decision should be taken, taking into consideration these figures”, he said, expressing the hope that concrete criteria must be considered and condemned the so-called foreign ministry for its decision.

In response, ‘foreign minister’ Tahsin Ertugruloglu said that there is a misconception that every request for religious ceremonies in the past had been accepted, but that ever since he assumed duties he has been rejecting them, which is not true.

He said that a remarkable increase was observed on the number of request for religious ceremonies and that the decision to set ground rules was taken in order to regulate these ceremonies. We are not trying to prevent religious ceremonies, he said.

Ertugruloglu added that they don’t want the issue to be perceived as if they are trying to prevent Greek Cypriots from observing their religious ceremonies.

Following reports earlier in the week that limitations were imminent, the Office of the Religious Track of the Cyprus Peace Process (RTCYPP) announced that the change of policy, once confirmed, “will be put on the table of dialogue for further discussion at the next meeting of the religious leaders”.

The office of the RTCYPP has been working on a revised mechanism of worship applications with the religious leaders of Cyprus for two years now and has been facilitating dialogue with all key stakeholders in this regard, it said.

“We are willing to continue to facilitate the much-needed dialogue on this matter with all relevant actors and reach a mutually acceptable solution that is based on human rights principles”.

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