Minority Rights Group International (MRG) Deputy Director, Claire Thomas, writes this opinion piece for the Thomson Reuters News Foundation.+ LEARN MORE
Cyprus is an island in the eastern Mediterranean, to the south of Turkey and the west of Syria and Lebanon.
Turkish and Greek Cypriots have lived together on Cyprus for more than four centuries. Although the majority population of the island has long been Greek-speaking, it was ruled by the Ottoman Empire until 1878, when Britain received Cyprus in return for providing protection against tsarist Russia. After World War II, the Orthodox Church and EOKA (the National Organization of Cyprus Fighters) spearheaded movements against the British and favouring enosis (union with Greece), and the guerrilla wing of the latter carried out attacks on British soldiers and establishments.
The Turkish community feared that union with Greece would result in its expulsion, and thus preferred partition of the island. In 1959 representatives of the Greek and Turkish communities and of the British government approved a plan whereby Cyprus was to become an independent republic with constitutional guarantees for the Turkish minority and British sovereignty over the island’s military bases. Independence was proclaimed on 16 August 1960, and Archbishop Vaneziz Makarios, a veteran of the anti-colonial movement, took office as President.
Deteriorating relations between the Greek and Turkish communities of Cyprus reflected tensions between Greece and Turkey. Violence between the two communities, and displacement of around 30,000 Turkish Cypriots prompted the United Nations to deploy a peacekeeping force (UNFICYP) in 1964. That force remains today, and is the longest-running peacekeeping mission in the UN’s history.
EOKA-B, founded in 1971, continued the terrorist activities of EOKA and demands for enosis. The conflict came to a head on 15 July 1974, when the Cypriot National Guard, under the command of Greek army officers, ousted Makarios and installed pro-enosis Nikos Sampson. Five days later, a force of 6,000 Turkish troops with tanks landed on the north coast of Cyprus, ostensibly to restore civilian rule in line with a 1960 agreement allowing Turkish, Greek or British military intervention in the event of a threat to the island’s democratic order. Heavy fighting occurred between the Turkish army and the Cypriot National Guard, and intercommunal conflict was reported from many parts of the island. Each community accused the other of atrocities.
On 23 July 1974 the Greek government junta of colonels in Athens who had been behind the ousting of Makarios stepped down; on the same day the National Guard relieved Sampson of his post. A ceasefire agreement was concluded on 16 August, by which time Turkish forces had occupied 37 per cent of the island in the north. Prisoners of war were exchanged, but each side maintained that many people were unaccounted for: 2,700 Greek Cypriots and 240 Turkish Cypriots. Turkey’s forces remained.
From 1974 the government of the Republic of Cyprus no longer controlled the occupied north. A ‘temporary’ population exchange agreed in 1975 displaced some 140,000 Greek Cypriots from the north and around 60,000 Turkish Cypriots from the south, leaving both parts of the island almost entirely ‘ethnically cleansed’. Large numbers of mainland Turks settled in the occupied north.
A Turkish-Cypriot federal state was proclaimed in northern Cyprus in February 1975 with Rauf Denktash as its President. Denktash had previously headed the unrecognized ‘transitional administration’, established after independence in 1960 to govern the Turkish Cypriot community until constitutional provisions protecting them were fully effective. During his talks with Makarios at that time, four basic conditions were set for a negotiated settlement: the establishment of a bicommunal, non-aligned, independent and federal republic; an exact delimitation of the territories that each community would administer; internal restrictions on travel and ownership rights within the framework of a federal system, with equal rights for both communities; and sufficient federal power to ensure unity. Little progress was made in these negotiations.
On 15 November 1983 the ‘Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus’ (TRNC) was proclaimed with the imaginary ‘green line’ from 1974 cutting through the capital, Nicosia, and dividing north from south. Turkey was the only country to recognize this ‘state’, and successive UN resolutions acknowledge the unity of Cyprus and illegal occupation of the north. The fighting had caused some 11,000 Turkish Cypriots from the south of the island to take refuge in the north; only about 100 remained in the south.
A new Turkish government in 2002 favoured Cypriot reunification, and in 2003 northern Cypriots elected pro-unification leaders. Restrictions on crossing the green line were relaxed and communities living on either site could maintain more regular contact and visit religious sites located in other parts of the country. In April 2004, Greek and Turkish Cypriots took part in separate simultaneous referenda on whether Cyprus would join the EU on 1 May 2004 as a re-united island based on a power-sharing agreement brokered by UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan. While 64.91 per cent of Turkish Cypriots accepted the Annan Plan, an overwhelming majority of 75.83 per cent of Greek Cypriots rejected the UN blueprint.
The extent of the Greek Cypriot no vote seemingly brought an end to a large-scale effort to find a solution to one of the oldest items on the peacemaking agenda. In the aftermath of the referenda, the European Commission decided to unleash an economic development package for the occupied north. In addition to supporting improvements in infrastructure, the economic aid was destined to help the farming community of the north and to facilitate export of goods to the south and outside the island.
In May 2004, the Republic of Cyprus, including northern Cyprus, became a member state of the European Union. Cypriots in the north are also considered EU citizens but in practice, EU laws are suspended, preventing Turkish Cypriots from taking advantage of the benefits of full EU membership.
Whereas in the thirteenth century there were some 60 Maronite villages in Cyprus, now only four villages count a traditional Maronite population. Before the Turkish invasion of 1974 some 2,444 Maronites lived in the traditional areas; that number has now contracted to less than 500. Threats to the continuation of a distinct Maronite identity in the south arise because of intermarriage with Greek Cypriots and the increasing secularization of Cypriot society. The 140 or so Maronites in the north of Cyprus, together with some 400 Greek Cypriots, are referred to in UN documents as ‘enclaved groups’. The concept of an ‘enclave’ is regarded as antithetical to international standards of human rights but appears to exist as a reality in Cyprus in the sense of a territorially defined area of human rights deprivation. Remaining Maronite villages in the north are effectively under close Turkish occupation. Their population is elderly, and if present trends continue there will soon be no Maronite community in the north.
The 1960 Constitution recognizes the Autocephalous Greek Orthodox Church, as well as Maronite Catholics, Armenian Orthodox and ‘Latins’ (Roman Catholics). These religious groups are exempt from paying taxes except on commercial activities. The 2009 US State Report on Religious freedom notes that both the synagogue in Larnaca and the Buddhist temple in Nicosia are primarily used by foreign nationals. The Jewish community of 2000 comprises a great number of European and Israeli Jews and only a small percentage of native Jewish Cypriots. The Report also mentions the constitutional and other legal prohibitions against religious discrimination, including the 1975 Vienna III Agreement, the basic regulation on the treatment of minority groups in both the government-controlled and Turkish Cypriot areas, and observes relatively few cases of discrimination based on religious affiliation, belief or practice.
According to the 2009 US Report the Turkish Cypriot authorities also respected religious freedom in general. In the area administered by Turkish Cypriots the main religion is Sunni Islam. Other groups include followers of other schools of Islam (such as Aleyis), Baha’i, Roman Catholics and Anglicans.
Main languages: Greek, Turkish, English
Main religious groups: Greek Orthodox Christianity (78%), Sunni Islam (18%), Maronite and Armenian Apostolic (4%). Other religious groups that constitute less than 5% of the population include Roman Catholic, Protestant, non-Sunni Muslim, Jewish and other groups.
Main minority groups: Turkish Cypriots 142,000 (18%), Maronites 4,940 (0.6%), Armenians 2,600 (0.3%), Latins (Roman Catholics) 900 (0.1%) and Roma 620-650 (0.08%).
[Note: Total population (used for converting some percentages), and percentages for Greek Orthodox, Muslims, and Turkish Cypriots all come from the CIA World Factbook 2010. Figures for religious groups are taken from the US State Dept’s 2009 Religious freedom report on Cyprus. Figures for Maronites and Greek Cypriots in the north are taken from the US State Dept’s 2006 human rights report on Cyprus. Figures for Roma in the south are taken from a government submission to the FCNM Advisory Committee in October 2006. Figures for Maronites, Armenians, and Latins in the south are taken from the Cypriot statistical service, 2004.]
The 1960 constitution of the Republic of Cyprus allots political representation by ethnicity. Officially, Cyprus has an 80-seat, unicameral parliament, with 24 seats reserved for Turkish Cypriots and the rest for Greek Cypriots. The Turkish seats have remained unfilled since 1964. In 2005 the European Court of Human Rights ruled that Turkish Cypriots living in the south must be allowed to vote and stand for election in Greek Cypriot elections. By law, Turks living in the north are disallowed from running for parliament in the south, and this is now also under legal challenge.
In the de facto 56-seat parliament, no minorities are represented, although the Maronite, Latin (Roman Catholic) and Armenian communities are allowed three non-voting observers. Roma have neither representation nor observer status.
The constitution stipulates that the Cypriot president must be Greek and the Vice President Turkish; the latter office has been vacant since the island’s division. This provision denies other minorities the opportunity to run for either of the top two executive posts.
In the unrecognized northern TRNC, Turkish Cypriots elect a parliament, which in turn chooses a prime minister. Greek and Maronite Cypriots are denied the opportunity to run for office, and there are no minorities in parliament.
Minority based and advocacy organisations
Committee for the Restoration of Human Rights
Cyprus Action Network
Cyprus EU Association (Turkish Cypriot organization)
KISA (Asylum seekers/migrants)
NGO Support Centre in the north
Mediterranean Institute of Gender Studies
NGO Support Center
Northern Cypriot organisation, worked with Maronites and Armenians
Turkish Cypriot Human Rights Foundation
Sources and further reading
International Crisis Group, The Cyprus Stalemate: What Next?, March 2006.
Papadakis, Y., Echoes from the Dead Zone: Across the Cyprus Divide, I.B. Taurs & Co., 2005.
Papadakis, Y., Divided Cyprus: Modernity, History, and an Island in Conflict (New Anthropologies of Europe), Indiana University Press, 2006.
Minorities and indigenous peoples in