Access to religious sites should continue to be discussed by officials on both sides of the divide, a US state department report on the island said on Tuesday.

It underlined that this is a stance encouraged by the US Ambassador and embassy representatives on the island, clarifying that the government of the Republic of Cyprus is the only internationally recognised government on the island.

The report said that the US government estimates the total population of the island at 1.3 million (midyear 2022). According to the 2021 census, the most recent, the population in the Republic stood at 918,100.

Based on the 2011 census, 89.1 per cent of the population is Orthodox Christian and 2.9 per cent is Roman Catholic, known locally as Latin. Other religious groups include Protestants (2 per cent), Muslims (1.8 per cent), Buddhists (1 per cent), Maronite Catholics (0.5 per cent), and Armenian Orthodox (0.3 per cent), with small populations of Jews, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and Baha’is.

But the government “allowed visitors access to only six of the 19 mosques designated as cultural heritage sites,” the report said, “as well as to two other mosques not located on such sites. Of the eight functioning mosques, seven were available for all five daily prayers and seven had the necessary bathroom and ablution facilities.”

It added that the department of antiquities continued to limit regular access to the Hala Sultan Tekke Mosque to only two of the five daily prayers, although it routinely granted expanded access during Ramadan.

The report said that representatives of the Jewish community continued to report that authorities performed autopsies on deceased members of the community for deaths that were not suspicious, a practice they said violated Jewish religious beliefs and practice. They stated that despite their continuing efforts to raise the issue with government authorities during the year, it remained unresolved.

In February, it added, the bicommunal Technical Committee on Cultural Heritage (TCCH), finished the conservation of Zuhuri Mosque in Larnaca. In August, the TCCH completed the restoration of Orounda Mosque in Nicosia district, while in September, the department of antiquities began the long-awaited restoration of the Limassol Grand Mosque after the government unexpectedly closed the mosque in 2019.

Furthermore, it said that Greek Orthodox Christians reported they sometimes faced ostracism from their community if they converted to another religion.

Leaders of the main religious groups continued to meet under the framework of the Religious Track of the Cyprus Peace Process (RTCYPP) and advocated greater religious freedom for faith communities across the island, it continued.

Regarding US embassy representatives, including the ambassador, the report said they continued to meet with government officials to discuss issues such as access to religious sites on both sides of the Green Line.

Embassy officials also visited places of religious significance on both sides of the Green Line and encouraged continued dialogue and cooperation among religious leaders.

More specifically, it said embassy representatives met with government officials from the interior, foreign and justice ministries to discuss religious freedom issues, including encouraging greater access to religious sites on both sides of the Green Line.

Regarding Turkish Cypriots, the report said that according to a statement from the ‘statistics council’ in the north, as of October 2022, the population of the area administered by Turkish Cypriots is estimated to be 391,000. There is no data on religious affiliation.

It noted that during the year, the ‘foreign affairs ministry’ stated it approved 107 out of 173 requests to hold Greek Cypriot religious services between January and December, compared with 37 of 66 requests in 2021.

It added that Turkish Cypriot officials reported they routinely denied requests from Greek Cypriot religious leaders who appeared in the media brandishing weapons or who have openly delivered public messages “full of hatred, intolerance, and enmity toward the [Turkish Cypriot] people.” They said they also denied some requests due to “unsafe physical and structural conditions” of the churches.

According to the report, Turkish-Speaking Protestant Association (TSPA) representatives continued to report police surveillance of their activities and that according to Greek Orthodox representatives, Turkish Cypriot police monitored their church services.

In addition, it says that the TSPA said Turkish Cypriots who converted from Islam to other faiths often experienced societal pressure, abuse, insult, public criticism, and workplace discrimination.