NICOSIA, Cyprus (AP) — More needs to be done to allow worshippers free and unfettered access to religious sites on the ethnically divided island of Cyprus, a U.N. expert said Thursday.
Heiner Bielefeldt, the U.N. special rapporteur on freedom of religion and belief, said the situation has improved some after crossings linking the island's minority Turkish-speaking north and its majority Greek-speaking south were opened nine years ago.
This has allowed Muslim Turkish Cypriots to visit holy sites in the south, and Orthodox Christian Greek Cypriots to do so in the north.
But Bielefeldt, who presented the preliminary findings of his eight-day fact finding mission, said restrictions are still in place, especially where religious sites are situated in military-controlled areas in northern Cyprus.
"Freedom of religion ... is a right, not an act of mercy," said Bielefeldt, a human rights professor at Germany's Erlangen-Nurnberg University and a former director of Germany's National Human Rights Institution.
The Mediterranean island was split in 1974 when Turkey invaded after a coup by supporters of union with Greece. Turkish Cypriots declared an independent state in 1983, but it is only recognized by Turkey, which maintains 35,000 troops there. The island joined the European Union in 2004, but membership benefits are enjoyed only by the internationally-recognized south.
Talks aimed at reunifying the island have made little progress since they began in 2008.
Bielefeldt said the island's approximately 2,000 Maronite Christians are still prevented from visiting some churches and cemeteries in northern villages because they are within Turkish military zones. He also said derelict Orthodox Christian churches and cemeteries across the north, including areas such as the northeastern Karpas peninsula have been vandalized, looted or left to crumble.
"Vandalism is unacceptable, terrible, and it hurts people's feelings, and that was very clear when I had the opportunity to talk to people in the Karpas region," said Bielefeldt.
He said Muslims living in the south expressed concern at the lack of religious education and a lack of funding for the maintenance of mosques and cemeteries.
He criticized Cyprus authorities for deporting asylum seekers — especially of the Baha'i faith — despite risks that they will be persecuted for their religious beliefs.
Bielefeldt also urged Greek Cypriot education authorities to incorporate more information in the school curriculum about different religions and beliefs.