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Cyprus: Religious Respect and the Opposite

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE

CONTACT: JONATHAN CLARKE

February 3, 1998 No. 07/98

CYPRUS: RELIGIOUS RESPECT AND THE OPPOSITE

In contrast to the frequent reports of religious discrimination and persecution in the U.S. media, there was some good news last week. On January 31, 1998, Cyprus was the location for a significant act of religious respect and inter-communal toleration.

On that day, about 1,300 Muslim residents of the Turkish-occupied areas of Cyprus crossed the UN controlled "Green Line" into the government controlled area. The Turkish Cypriots were on a pilgrimage to the Hala Soultan mosque in Larnaca, a city on Cyprus' southeast coast, on the occasion of Sheker Bayram, which marks the end of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan.

Respect for religious and cultural diversity is a key value for the Government of the Republic of Cyprus. Mosques and other sites of Islamic heritage are afforded special protection and financial support. The pilgrims at the Hala Soultan mosque commented on the building's good condition.

Ironically, on the very day that the pilgrimage to Larnaca was demonstrating the Republic of Cyprus' commitment to an intercommunal approach to the Cyprus problem, the Turkish State Minister for Cyprus Affairs, Mr. Sukru Sina Gurel, declared his opposition to intercommunal contacts. In a January 31 interview with Kybris he stated: "The intercommunal talks have ended." In support for Turkish Cypriot leader Rauf Denktash's rejection of intercommunality, he commented: "As the Turkish government, we consider Denktash very rightful in his stand."

Sadly, Mr. Gurel's statement reflects the lack of commitment by Turkey to religious tolerance in the occupied areas. The State Department's 1997 Human Rights issued January 30, 1998, contains evidence that the authorities there make little effort to enforce their laws barring religious discrimination. The report refers to vandalism of Orthodox Churches and to the religious, educational, and cultural harassment suffered by the Greek Cypriot and Maronite communities in the occupied areas.

American Hellenic Institute General Counsel Eugene T. Rossides stated: "Religious freedom is a fundamental American value. The government of Cyprus has shown that it honors this value in practical, concrete terms. It is a great pity that Turkey and the Turkish Cypriots are not ready to reciprocate."