Cyprus Mail

Education ministry rapped over freedom of religion in schools

ATTACKS against religious minorities and complaints against the education ministry for failing to observe the state’s neutrality with regard freedom of religion, are included in the US Department of State’s 2015 Report on International Religious Freedom in Cyprus.

According to the annual report, since in Cyprus “religion and ethnicity are often closely linked” it was difficult to categorise many incidents as being solely based on religious identity.

The report also said that the ombudswoman’s office had last year examined four complaints she had received in 2014 related to the implementation of the ministry of education’s policy on religious freedom in education.

One complaint involved a high school student whom the school’s deputy principal reportedly pressured and threatened when he refused to participate in a school-organised religious service, and in another, a student exempted from religious instruction said he was punished with unexcused absences for not attending religion classes. “The problem was rectified after the submission of an additional complaint to the school administration”, the report said.

In the third case, the Association of Atheists of Cyprus complained about a 2013 ministry of education circular encouraging public schools to organise groups of pupils to help during the liturgy at Greek Orthodox Churches and to participate in children’s church choirs.

The fourth complaint came from a secondary school student whose application the education ministry rejected for exemption from religious instruction on the grounds of conscience. “The ministry said the student should have stated in his application he was not an Orthodox Christian in order to qualify for exemption,” the report said.

“The ombudsman 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 the reasonable impression it favoured a specific religion”. Following consultations with the ombudsman, it said, the ministry issued a new circular amending the policy on exemptions, but the ombudswoman objected to it as it required applicants to state their religion.

The report also mentions that eight mosques in the government-controlled area were open, and that six of those were available for all five daily prayers and had the necessary facilities for ablutions.

“However, Muslim community leaders stated the government had not granted them full access to mosques located on cultural heritage sites and denied them any administrative authority over the sites”. Turkish Cypriots, the report said, reported that the antiquities department “kept the Hala Sultan Tekke Mosque, the most important Islamic religious site in the country, open during standard museum hours, limiting access to the mosque to two of the five daily prayer times”.

It added that the Cyprus government granted 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.

One of the the positive point of the report, is that “members of all minority religious groups reported relations between the Church of Cyprus and other religious communities in the government-controlled area were cordial”.

It also mentioned the on-going interfaith dialogue between the leaders of the main religious groups on the island, and their meeting with the two community leaders president Nicos Anastasiades and Mustafa Akinci last September.

The report also referred to the work of the technical committee on cultural heritage, and their inclusion in the sites in need of emergency preservation measures of seven churches and monasteries in the north and four mosques in the government-controlled area.

It added that last July the government “approved the registration of a Buddhist organisation as a non-profit group”.

Citing the October 2011 Republic of Cyprus census, the reports said that the population of the government-controlled area was more than 858,000, of which 89.1 per cent was Greek Orthodox Christian and 1.8 percent Muslim. “Other religious groups include Roman Catholics, 2.9 per cent, Protestants, 2 per cent, Buddhists, 1 per cent, Maronite Catholics, 0.5 per cent, Armenian Orthodox, 0.3 per cent, Jews, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and Bahais”.

Recent immigrants and migrant workers are predominantly Roman Catholic, Muslim, and Buddhist, it said, while “the country’s chief rabbi estimates the number of Jews at approximately 3,000, most of whom are foreign-born residents”.

The report also mentions that representatives of the Jewish community reported incidents of assault, verbal harassment, and vandalism directed against people with yarmulkes and payot (hair side curls). “In January a crowd of up to 20 young Greek Cypriots threw rocks at an assistant rabbi’s house while he hid inside.

In March a member of the Jewish community was assaulted in his car and his prayer books were thrown out into the street by a Greek-speaking assailant”.  In addition, the Jewish community representatives, it said, reported receiving nearly weekly reports of verbal harassment of observant Jews by individuals from Arab countries in the Phinikoudes area of Larnaca.

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