UN expert hails “key breakthrough for religious freedom reached in Cyprus”

GENEVA (22 October 2013) – The United Nations Special Rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief, Heiner Bielefeldt, today hailed a key breakthrough in inter-faith communication reached by a cross section of religious leaders on the whole of Cyprus. The agreement allowed Muslim and Greek Orthodox religious leaders to cross the Green Line dividing the island.

“These may seem like small steps, but they constitute a huge leap for the religious communities concerned,” Mr. Bielefeldt said. “I am very pleased about the recent positive developments and improved climate of interreligious communication in Cyprus. I consider it a breakthrough for religious freedom on the whole island.”

On 18 October 2013, the Grand Mufti of Cyprus, Dr. Talip Atalay, crossed the green line and held service at Hala Sultan Mosque near Larnaca for the first time. This was possible due to an agreement reached with the Greek Orthodox Archbishop Chrysostomos II, who personally facilitated Dr. Atalay’s access to the areas controlled by the Government of the Republic of Cyprus.

Two days earlier, Bishop Christoforos of Karpasia, who had been prevented for the previous 18 months from visiting the northern part of Cyprus and his diocese, was allowed to visit and worship at the monastery Apostolos Andreas on the Karpass peninsula in the north-east of Cyprus.

“While the Cyprus conflict is not per se a religious conflict, all cooperation between the religious leaders had stopped when the bi-communal conflict between Greek Cypriots and Turkish Cypriots escalated fifty years ago,” the UN Special Rapporteur added.

Mr. Bielefeldt praised the religious leaders during a video conference held last Friday concerning the new significant steps they made towards improving freedom of religion or belief on the whole island. He also encouraged them to create an inclusive institutional framework to promote ongoing communication, such as an Interreligious Council for Peace in Cyprus.

On 12 September 2013, Mr. Bielefeldt took part in the first Interreligious roundtable held in Cyprus, organised by the Office of the Religious Track of the Cyprus Peace Process, under the auspices of the Embassy of Sweden, and in cooperation with the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights.

“Such cooperation on the whole island creates a fertile ground for addressing the underlying human rights issues, which could also have a positive impact on the reconciliation process as a whole,” he said.

These efforts follow-up to the Special Rapporteur’s recommendations in his 2013 report to the UN Human Rights Council, in which he stressed the importance of ensuring that there are no human rights protection gaps and that all persons can effectively enjoy their fundamental rights, including freedom of religion or belief, wherever they live.

Heiner Bielefeldt assumed his mandate on 1 August 2010. As Special Rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief, he is independent from any government, and acts in his individual capacity. Mr. Bielefeldt is Professor of Human Rights and Human Rights Politics at the University of Erlangen-Nürnberg. From 2003 to 2009, he was Director of Germany’s National Human Rights Institution. The Special Rapporteur’s research interests include various interdisciplinary facets of human rights theory and practice, with a focus on freedom of religion or belief.

(*) Read the Special Rapporteur’s report on his visit to Cyprus:  http://www.ohchr.org/Documents/HRBodies/HRCouncil/RegularSession/Session22/AHRC2251Add.1_English.pdf

Learn more about the mandate and work of the Special Rapporteur: http://www.ohchr.org/EN/Issues/FreedomReligion/Pages/FreedomReligionIndex.aspx

Download the “Rapporteur's Digest on Freedom of Religion or Belief”: http://www.ohchr.org/Documents/Issues/Religion/RapporteursDigestFreedomReligionBelief.pdf

Check the Declaration on the Elimination of All Forms of Intolerance and of Discrimination Based on Religion or Belief: http://www.ohchr.org/EN/ProfessionalInterest/Pages/ReligionOrBelief.aspx

For more information and media requests please contact: Sharof Azizov (+41 22 917 9748/ sazizov@ohchr.org) or write to freedomofreligion@ohchr.org

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Xabier Celaya, UN Human Rights – Media Unit (+ 41 22 917 9383 / xcelaya@ohchr.org)  

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