UN expert condemns church access limits in Cyprus' north

AP News
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Posted: Jun 02, 2016 11:40 AM

NICOSIA, Cyprus (AP) — A U.N. cultural rights expert on Thursday condemned an attempt by Turkish Cypriot authorities to restrict the number of church services in the breakaway north of ethnically split Cyprus.

U.N. Special Rapporteur Karima Bennoune said that she welcomes assurances that the newly-introduced curbs have been rolled back.

But she said much remains unclear about how often services can be held at churches in the north and urged Turkish Cypriot authorities to clear up any "unhelpful" confusion.

"I think there is a great deal of questions about how that will be interpreted and how that will be implemented," Bennoune said at the end of a weeklong fact-finding trip to the ethnically divided island. "I am deeply concerned about the possible violations of cultural rights and the rights of religious freedom that may result from any such restriction."

Turkish Cypriot authorities said last week that church services in the north would be limited to once a year except for three "very important" churches.

Bennoune said Turkish Cypriot authorities spoke of an "abusive" number of applications for services, some of which they believe were being held for "political purposes."

A Turkish invasion in the wake of a 1974 coup aiming to unite Cyprus with Greece split the island into an internationally recognized Greek Cypriot south and a breakaway Turkish Cypriot north.

The attempt to impose restrictions threatened to cast a shadow over efforts by the island's Muslim and Christian leaders in recent years to ease access for religious worship that have helped to foster trust between the communities that for almost three decades had virtually no interaction.

Religious leaders have also thrown their full support behind ongoing negotiations to reunify the island as a federation.

"Carrying out politics via restrictions on cultural rights is entirely unacceptable," said Bennoune, who also warned Greek Cypriots to avoid reprisal restrictions.

Bennoune urged Cypriot government authorities to simplify and streamline procedures that complicate access to cemeteries, mosques and cultural sites for Turkish Cypriots. She also called on the government to ratify an optional protocol to the International social cultural rights covenant that would enable complaints over cultural rights violations to be investigated.

She said a number of churches in the north are in very poor condition and underscored the need for additional international funding for restoration projects that should be speeded up to prevent monuments from being "irreparably lost."

"All must work together to protect the cultural heritage of all," Bennoune said.