Interreligious communication, Freedom of Religion and Peacebuilding in Cyprus

On the 11th of March 2016, the Permanent Mission of Sweden at the United Nations in Geneva organised a side-event to the 31st Human Rights Council focusing on inter-religious dialogue in Cyprus island. Moderated by the head of the Office of the Religious Track of the Cyprus Peace Process, Mrs. Salpy Eskidjian, the panel presented the ongoing efforts provided on both side of the inner-Cypriot border to secure a better common understanding based on freedom of religion. Two main religious leaders of the island demonstrated their goodwill to the audience in geneva, the Bishop Porfyrios of Neapolis was representing the Archbishop Chrysostomos II of the Greek-Orthodox Chruch of Cyprus and Dr. Talip Atalay, represented the Muslim belief as the Mufti of Cyprus. 


*The Bishop of the Greek Orthodox Church from Greek Cyprus, Porfyrios of Neapolis, open the discussion of this panel highlighting the ongoing process of dialogue between religious leaders in Cyprus. Under the auspices of the Swedish embassy in Cyprus, the main religious leaders of the island, beyond the borders have started meeting one another since 2009 and have created a prolific interreligious dialogue favouring the peace process. The bishop mentions that it has not always been easy to conduct this dialogue. However, according to him, the main obstacles to it originated from external factors rather than internal political or popular opposition. Porfyrios adds that this dialogue has received the support from Dr. Heiner Bielefeldt, the United Nations Special rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief, who has visited Cyprus four times since 2012. Such a dialogue aiming to restore religious freedom in Cyprus is at the core of the objectives of Dr. Bielefeldt’s mandate. The first ever interreligious platform was held in Cyprus on the 1st of October 2015, bringing together representatives of nearly all the main faith represented on the island, from Islam to the Latin, Armenian, Maronite and Greek-Orthodox Churches. The Bishop recalled that the main demand of all religious leaders is the relaxation of the permission to carry religious services on the island, alongside with the Mufti of Cyprus, Dr. Talip Atalay (present at the panel). Another embodiment of this successful dialogue is the publication of a joint statement between the Bishop and the Mufti condemning all forms of violence and terrorist attacks after the terrible Paris terrorist attacks in last November 2015. Before, in February 2015 they also issued a joint address to Cypriot political leaders to enhance the peace process. However, the setbacks are also frequent. For instance Porfyrios insists that five subsequent requests to conduct a religious service in Churches of Northern Cyprus were refused by the Turkish Cypriot authorities while several monasteries and Churches are still not being restored in the Northern part of the island and are being desacralized. 


Porfyrios highlighted his main demands:

•Religious leaders should be accepted as confidence building measures through the political peace process.

•Permissions to conducts religious services without restrictions in Northern-Cyprus should be guaranteed.

•A free access to religious monuments wherever on the island should be implemented.

Finally, the dialogue among religious leaders of Cyprus contributed significantly, according to the Bishop, to a future settlement of peace and coexistence. 


*The Mufti of Cyprus, Dr. Talip Atalay took then the flaw. He asserted that the successful dialogue for a sustainable peace is not only religious but also at the political level. Since 1960, Cyprus struggles to accommodate its varying interests and the relations between the different faiths represented on the island. The mufti trusts that we should learn from the hundreds of years of peaceful coexistence between those faiths under the Ottoman Empire era. Still, according to Dr. Atalay, there are positive evolutions despite remaining problems. He estimates that more progress has been done in the South than in the North. But he insists that imams and local communities of the North are organising the cleaning of churches and that there is an understanding of the need to care for them. He also demands that all places of worship should be accessible without permits on all the island. As he said, he thinks that the Millet system applied under the Ottomans was a successful way to guarantee the peaceful coexistence of all religious minorities with the majority. For him, today’s world should revisit such an accommodating system as Cyprus as always been a bridge between Europe and the Middle-East. The language of religion should be the one of mercy and acceptance to the other. He preaches that we have to care for all sufferings beyond differences. The religious leaders have the obligation to reach out to everyone. He praises the dialogue with the Christian religious leaders, with whom he united to stand against any violence affecting a Church or a Mosque. He wants to push the efforts made for peacebuilding particularly under the spectrum of interfaith dialogue. Indeed, to him religious leaders should be examples and spiritual guides in the world. He believes that those seven years (since 2009) of contact between the Cypriot religious leaders to promote human rights and freedom of religion can foster a lasting peace model in the world, the Cypriot model. 


* Peter Weiderut, the Swedish director of the Swedish Institute of Alexandria (Egypt) then shared the four “golden lessons” he learned from this interreligious communication in Cyprus:

•An initiative with religious leaders is important during all weather. It gives hope to people when the political dialogue is at a low and it accelerates the peacebuilding efforts when the relations between political leaders are at a high.

•People of faith have the ability to change through dialogue. A person of faith relates to something external [god] and hence it makes a potential for change. The Middle-East is the centre of three monotheistic religions and as such we cannot afford avoiding such a religious dialogue. 

•Interreligious dialogue is always promoting peace. A few weeks ago a mosque was burnt down in Cyprus and the Mufti and Bishops of Cyprus stood together against it. While ten years ago, this event would have sparked a conflict on the island.

•Freedon of religion or belief is an excellent platform for dialogue. Everyone can find something he might like about this value of freedom of religion. A Freedom to practice a religion, a freedom from religion (exit) and a freedom to choose a religion. 


*Dr. Heiner Bielefeldt, UN Special Rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief expressed his enthusiasm about this process of interfaith dialogue. The latter gives him reasons for hope, he said. He highlighted three points of “broadening” learned from the dialogue:

•Broadening ownership in the interreligious dialogue. In October 2015, before the start of the rounds of dialogue in Cyprus, we had a meeting in a Catholic church and the Mufti of Cyprus came in and was applauded loudly by the worshippers. There is a real endorsement by the Cypriot people, no matter their faith. It is not just a chemistry between two or three main religious leaders, the endorsement by a broaden people solidifies the process. 

•Broadening the self-understanding of Cyprus. Cyprus is a diverse society but seemed to be limited to a traditional mosaic. Indeed, big communities have a bigger responsibility. However, new forms of diversity have emerged like Buddhism. Asylum seekers from Sri Lanka and domestic seekers belonging to this faith are adding another side to the Cypriot mosaic. And it was with great pleasure that the Buddhist religious leaders participated actively during the interreligious platform held last October.

•Broadening the perspective towards the region, the Middle-East. Cyprus as always played an interesting role in the region. For instance today, the country became a platform for organising civil marriages for the citizens of Israel and Lebanon who cannot do so in their homeland. 

Cyprus has become a model as a sign of hope. These are small steps but no matter what happens, communication must always prevail. 


Jean-Baptiste Allegrini - Research Assistant at the CIPADH.