Cyprus Mail

Religious freedom report refers to headscarf incident in high school

Mufti Dr Talip Atalay (right) with Archbishop Chrysostomos

The State Department’s 2019 report on International Religious Freedom refers in the Cyprus section to the incident at a public high school last September when a head teacher sent away a Muslim pupil  for wearing a headscarf.

The report, published on Wednesday,  states that the Republic of Cyprus’ Constitution prohibits religious discrimination and protects the freedom to worship, teach, and practice one’s religion and that it grants the Greek Orthodox Church of Cyprus the exclusive right to regulate and administer its internal affairs and recognises Evkaf, an Islamic institution that manages sites of worship and property Muslims have donated, as a charitable endowment.

Citing Cypriot media reports, it mentions that on September 6, 2019 the headmaster of a public secondary school instructed a Muslim student wearing a headscarf to leave the school and return only after removing it, adding that the then minister of education Costas Hampiaouris ordered an investigation into the incident and transferred the headmaster from the school.

It also adds that two of the eight functioning mosques under the guardianship of the ministry of interior continued to lack bathroom and ablution facilities.

The report noted that the Cyprus Department of Antiquities continued to limit access to Hala Sultan Tekke mosque to only two of the five daily prayers, although it routinely granted expanded access during Ramadan and at the request of the imam.

According to the report, the government continued to allow non-Cypriot nationals living in the area administered by Turkish Cypriots to travel to Hala Sultan Tekke mosque for pilgrimages during Eid al-Fitr, Eid al-Adha, and Mawlid al-Nabi.

It adds that the Jewish community continued to report isolated instances of anti-Semitic verbal harassment, and that authorities continued to conduct autopsies in nonsuspicious deaths, against the community’s wishes. The community continued to face difficulties obtaining government permission to perform animal slaughter for food production according to Jewish law, it said.

The report reiterates that Greek Orthodox Christians reported they sometimes faced ostracism from that community if they converted to another religion. In September a European Commission study found that 48 percent of respondents believed discrimination on the basis of religion or belief was widespread in the country.

The report also cites reports by non-governmental organisations Caritas and Action for Equality, Support, Antiracism (KISA) on cases in which private employers refused to hire women who wore hijabs. According to Caritas, Muslim students faced less discrimination than in previous years, the report said.

As regards the occupied territories, the report said that the Turkish Cypriot authorities continued to grant improved access to Greek Orthodox religious sites compared with the previous year. It adds that the Turkish Cypriot side approved 156 of 203 requests by Greek Cypriots to hold religious services during the year, compared with 118 of 153 requests in 2018.

A Greek Orthodox Church representative said Turkish Cypriot authorities continued to deny access requests without explanation, while sometimes applications were approved with insufficient time before the dates of requested religious services, resulting in cancellations or low attendance. Armenian Orthodox leaders said they had not submitted religious access requests during the year partly out of frustration with delayed approvals in prior years. A Greek Orthodox representative stated 63 religious sites remained inaccessible due to being located within Turkish military zones or the buffer zone.

According to the report, the Turkish-Speaking Protestant Associations (TSPA) said Turkish Cypriots who converted to other faiths often experienced societal criticism.

The Turkish Cypriots, the report said, said they completed the restoration of three more religious sites – two archaeological sites that have basilicas and a minaret of a mosque – and said the restoration of five churches continued at year’s end.

On the status of societal respect for religious freedom, the report said that Muslim and Orthodox religious leaders continued to promote religious tolerance by meeting and arranging pilgrimages for their congregations to places of worship across the buffer zone, including Hala Sultan Tekke mosque in the south and and St. Barnabas in the north.

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