Islamic Religious Education in Cypriot State Schools
State-Church Relations and the Muslim
Communities in Cyprus
State and Church in Cyprus
Islam was institutionalised in Cyprus after the Ottoman conquest in 1571. Under the Ottoman millet system, the local population was divided into different communities on the basis of religious affiliation and provided with a large degree of autonomy regarding their own educational, cultural, religious, and legal affairs. The distinct separation of Christian and Muslim schools was maintained following British colonial and independent Republic of Cyprus administrations, and this has remained the practice to the present day.
In 1960, Cyprus achieved national independence from the British Empire. The Republic of Cyprus was founded on the basis of a bi-communal state, derived from the segregation of the two principal ethnic communities, the Greek and Turkish Cypriots, on 16 August 1960. The Constitution reflects the strong bi-communal character of the state, and many of the rights, freedoms, and obligations of the citizens (Appendix D: Part 1, Articles 1-5) were derived from membership in one of the communities (Latif, 2014, 48). Separate communal chambers, which exercise legislative powers with regard to all religious, educational, and cultural matters (Constitution Part IV, Articles 61-85 and 86-111), were created for the Greek and Turkish Cypriot communities. Thus, the former ethnically and religiously segregated education system and the autonomy of communal religious institutions and religious policy have been strengthened by law.
The Republic of Cyprus is a secular state. The constitutional articles guarantee freedom of religion and prohibit religious discrimination. According to Article 18, all religions are equal before the law. Every person has the right to believe, worship, teach, practise or observe, and change religion or belief. Legislative, executive, and administrative acts should not discriminate against any religious institution or religion. Article 18 (6) states that
[f]reedom to manifest one’s religion or belief shall be subject only to such limitations as are prescribed by law and are necessary in the interests of the security of the Republic or the constitutional order or the public safety or the public order or the public health or the public morals or for the protection of the rights and liberties guaranteed by this Constitution to any person. (Constitution Appendix D: Part 2)
There is no officially designated state religion in Cyprus, but the Constitution recognises five main religions: the Orthodox Christian, the Islamic, the Maronite, the Armenian, and the Roman Catholic. Thus, Islam is among the constitutionally recognised religions and constitutes one of the elements of the bi-communal character of the Republic of Cyprus (Emilianides, 2005). A system of coordination between the state and the major religions has been adopted by the state, which also recognises the authority of the main religions over their internal affairs, administration of their property, family matters, and matters of communal character (Emilianides, 2011a).
Due to the relapse of inter-communal disputes, the constitutional order of the Republic of Cyprus collapsed in 1963. The 1974 war led to the de facto division of the island into the Turkish Cypriot North (the unrecognised TRNC, Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus) and the Greek Cypriot South (Republic of Cyprus), separated by a demilitarised zone. After the collapse of constitutional rule and the division of the island, two separate administrations retained autonomy over their respective societies. As a result of the failure of negotiations to achieve a lasting solution to the conflict, the Turkish Cypriot community declared the independence of the TRNC in 1983, which is not recognised by any state other than Turkey. The basic law of the Turkish Cypriot community makes reference to the secular nature of the TRNC and guarantees freedom of faith and conscience. As with the Republic of Cyprus, there is no official state religion, and the combination of religion with politics is prohibited, as exemplified in Article 23 (5) of the Constitution, which specifies that “[r]eligion or religious feelings shall not be exploited for the purpose of basing, the basic social, economic, political or legal order of the state on religious precepts, or for the purpose of securing political or personal advantage or influence”.
The Muslim Communities in Cyprus
Currently, Christians - including the Orthodox, Catholics, and Protestants - make up 78% of the total population of the entire island (EURYDICE, 2018). The great majority of Greek Cypriots are members of the Greek Orthodox Church of Cyprus, while the majority of Turkish
Cypriots adhere to Sunni Islam. There are also Baha’i, Hindu, Jewish, and non-religious communities in Cyprus but, as these are not considered religious groups by the Constitution, they do not have the special status of the recognised religions. According to the Pew Research Center (2017), the total number of Muslims in Southern and Northern Cyprus is estimated to be 25.4%, but this seems to be somewhat overestimated: other sources (e.g. EURYDICE, 2018) estimate this number to be 18%, which is the highest rate of Muslims in the European Union. While Muslims in the Turkish Cypriot North have mainly an indigenous background, the Muslim community in the Greek Cypriot South includes mostly Pakistani, Iraqi, Afghan, and Iranian immigrants and Syrian and Palestinian refugees (Avraamidou et al., 2017).
According to the last census conducted by the Republic of Cyprus, 89.1% of the total population is Greek Orthodox and 1.8% is Muslim (Statistical Service Republic of Cyprus, 2011). The latest available information from the Statistical Service Department of the Republic of Cyprus regarding the precise number of the Muslim population is 15,255 as of May 2014 (Statistical Service Republic of Cyprus, 2014).
The population of North Cyprus is 286,257 according to the last census result in 2011. There is no distribution according to religion in the data. The report on international religious freedom on Cyprus in 2017 estimates that 97% of the population in the North are Sunni Muslims, of which about 500 are from the Naqshbandi Sufi order (International Religious Freedom Report Cyprus, 2017). In addition, 10,000 of the immigrant workers and 8,000 naturalised North Cypriot citizens of Turkish, Kurdish, and Arab origin are estimated to be Alevis (Dayioglu and Hatay, 2018, 190).
Religion and Education in Cyprus: General Overview
The education system of the Republic of Cyprus is founded on the national legal framework and international conventions. The articles of the Constitution protect the right to education. According to Article 20 (2), free primary education shall be offered to all students in their respective communal primary schools. When the constitutional order of the Republic of Cyprus broke up in 1963, the Greek Communal Chamber was dissolved and the Ministry of Education and Culture took over its educational functions. In the contemporary education system, pre-primary, primary, and lower secondary education are mandatory. There is free public education, which means education is organised and funded by the state. Although education is not compulsory for children between the ages of 15 and 18, upper secondary education - including technical and vocational education and training - is provided free of charge in the public sector.
With regard to religious education (RE) and religious instruction (RD, Article 20 (1) of the Constitution asserts that “[e]very person has the right to receive, and every person or institution has the right to give, instruction or education (...) including the right of the parents to secure for their children such education is in conformity with their religious convictions”. In addition, Article 20 (4) clarifies that “education shall be made available by the Greek and the Turkish Communal Chambers”. In the Constitution of the TRNC, Article 23 (4) states that “education and instruction in religion shall be conducted under state supervision and control”. This article legally affirms that only the state provides RE or RI. This article, which does not apply to the Greek Cypriot South, implies that there can be no religious schools and no after-school or extracurricular RI such as Quran courses in the TRNC (Latif, 2014, 59).
Religious Education/Religious Instruction in the Greek Cypriot South
RE - in the present form of RI - is one of the major subjects of the centralised education system of the Greek Cypriot South that adopts the same national curricula, official textbooks, handbooks, and manuals in all schools at the same level (Tapakis, 2003). As a consequence of the strong interest of the Orthodox Church of Cyprus in education during the Ottoman and British periods, education was perceived to be crucial for the maintenance of the Greek Orthodox character of the island under foreign rule (Persianis, 1978). The strong connection between education and religion remained in the early years of the republic as both areas were within the competences of the Greek and Turkish Communal Chambers. As a result, Turkish education was associated with the Islamic religion and Greek education was connected to the Orthodox Christian religion. Hence, both religions have become integral parts of their respective curricula.
In Greek Cypriot state schools (schools established and funded by the state), RI for pupils belonging to other religions, with the exception of Maronites and Turkish Cypriots, cannot be provided. Maronite children in state schools receive RI taught by Maronite priests, and Turkish Cypriot pupils have the right to RI in their mother language and in their own religion (Emilianides, 2011b). On the other hand, the Republic of Cyprus is committed to supporting the recognised religious minority groups - namely the Maronite, Armenian, and Latins - in operating their own schools in order to promote their identity, culture, and religion. Therefore, children belonging to these religious groups can attend private schools of their choice if they prefer so to do, and the state covers all their schooling expenditures, including RI.
Religious Education/Religious Instruction in the Turkish Cypriot North
Currently, the education system of the Turkish Cypriot community consists of the following: optional pre-school (ages 4-5), compulsory
Islamic Religious Education in Cyprus 69 five-year primary (ages 6-11) and three-year lower secondary schooling (ages 12-15), and an optional four-year upper secondary school education (ages 15-18). According to Article 59 (5) of the Constitution, the state should provide education in accordance with the principles and reforms of Kemal Ataturk (the founder of the Turkish Republic), within a framework imbued with national culture and moral values. RI - that is, Islamic religious instruction (IRI) - is mandatory in primary and lower secondary schools but not in high (upper secondary) schools. Parents can officially appeal for their children to be exempted from RI, yet this rarely happens.
The Place of Islam within National Life and Education
On both sides of Cyprus, RE is organised in a mono-confessional way, with Orthodox Christian RI in the South and Sunni Islam RI in the North. The place and content of RI in state schools is, up to the present day, a source of conflict both in the Turkish Cypriot North and the Greek Cypriot South. Against this background, the following section scrutinises the place of Islam in history, national life, and education, with a particular focus on the Turkish Cypriot North.
Islam in Cyprus: History and National Life
The history of Islam in Cyprus dates back to the seventh century CE due to the incursions of the early Arab Muslims into the island. However, Islam was institutionalised after the Ottoman conquest of Cyprus in 1571. As part of the settlement policies (surgun) of the Ottoman sultans, a large transfer of populations from Anatolia to Cyprus created the conditions for the existence of a stable Muslim community on the island. Cyprus became a province of an Islamic state where Sharia law applied (Hendrich and Strohmeier, 2015). During Ottoman rule, Islam played an important role in the life of the Turkish Muslim Cypriot community. However, the ensuing British colonial administration during the period 1878-1960 and the application of Kemalist reforms in Turkey to the Turkish Cypriot community since the 1920s challenged the religious identity of Turkish Cypriots.
Under Ottoman rule from 1571 to 1878, Cyprus was administered through the millet system. According to this system, local communities were divided on the basis of religious affiliation as Muslims or nonMuslims. The majority of the Turkish Muslim community of Cyprus were followers of the Hanefi branch of Sunni Islam. As part of Ottoman administration, there was a Mufti (spiritual head of the Muslim community) for religious affairs, a chief Kadi (principal administrator of Sharia courts), and a Mulla as deputy of the Ottoman governor (Nevzat, 2005). Many Islamic vakfs (pious endowments), known as Evkaf, were created and administered local properties that controlled most of thefinancial life of the community (Bouleti, 2015, 76). RE was, in the form of IRI, given for the Muslim community in madrasas (educational institutions) and tekkes (religious centres of the Sufi orders) in rural areas (Latif, 2014).
The administration of Cyprus was handed over to the British Empire in 1878. During British colonial administration, Cypriot Muslims lost their special status derived from the sultan’s nominal sovereignty. The Muslim community was designated as millet, under the status of a religious community (Bouleti, 2015, 74). However, the Ottomans continued to appoint the officials for Islamic institutions and provided funds for education (Nevzat, 2005, 103-104). The division in educational, economic, political, and social fields between Christians and Muslims from the Ottoman era was maintained by the British colonial administration. Due to the growing politicisation of both communities and their educational systems, which were used to implant national consciousness and disseminate nationalism, however, the British centralised the control of schools in the early 20th century (Nevzat, 2005, 108-109; Nevzat and Hatay, 2009, 918). The colonial administration tightened its control of the segregated educational systems with boards and laws (Persianis, 1978, 52-54). Furthermore, the British administration introduced changes in Islamic institutions to restrict Ottoman influence in providing Islamic clerics (Hendrich and Strohmeier, 2015, 3). Soon, Muslim teachers replaced imams as tutors, which was regarded as the first step in the secularisation of Turkish Cypriot educational institutions (Ateçin, 2006, 337-338). During colonial times, IRI was provided in public Muslim schools (schools established by the Muslim community and funded by the state) and in religious institutions. Nonetheless, IRI was reduced to a very low level, and Cypriot Muslim schools incorporated more secular curricula over the years (Hendrich, 2015, 13).
The change from Ottoman to British rule contributed to the secularisation of the Turkish Muslim community in Cyprus. British colonial policies, the annulment of Ottoman institutions, and the efforts to modernise the educational system transformed the strict religious framework of the Ottoman period (Michael, 2014, 19). However, the fundamental shift in Muslim Cypriot identity that converted the community’s relationship with Islam was the result of the impact of the Kemalist revolution in Turkey. The Turkish Cypriot Kemalists used various platforms, particularly schools and the press, to spread the modernising reforms undertaken in Turkey (Stubbs and Taçeli, 2014). Since the 1930s, the Turkish Cypriot educational system has been highly secular. During the 1960s, only one hour per week was allocated to divinity classes from the second to the fourth years of primary schools, while neither lower nor upper secondary schools taught any religion at all until 1976 (Nevzat and Hatay, 2009, 923).
Overall, the Kemalist reforms facilitated the secularisation of the Turkish Cypriot administration, which in due course led to the secularisation of the society as a whole (Hendrich, 2015; Michael, 2014). The only empirical research on the religiosity of the Turkish Cypriot community disclosed that the majority do not belong to organised religious orders, do not follow a religious way of life, and do not believe that religious institutions can provide solutions to individual problems (Ye§ilada, 2009, 54-55). However, the consolidation of political power by the Justice and Development Party (AKP) since 2002 and the growing influence of political Islam in social, political, and educational policies in Turkey have constituted a turning point in the educational and religious domains in the Turkish Cypriot North. In the last decade, IRI has evolved into a highly contentious issue that has led to polarisation in the Turkish Cypriot community. The debates around IRI concerned the opening of the first public (i.e., state-funded) Islamic school, Hala Sultan Divinity College-, the mandating of optional religious and ethics education in lower secondary schools; and the implementation of Qur’an courses extending beyond the formal school curriculum. Let us now briefly look at each of these challenges.
Educational Policy in the North: Islamic Schools, Compulsory Islamic Religious Instruction, and Supplementary Islamic Religious Instruction
The first challenge was the opening in 2013 of the first public Islamic school in Cyprus, the Hala Sultan Divinity College, which was opened despite opposition from several secular Turkish Cypriot groups. In 2014, the Turkish Cypriot Teachers’ Union (KTOS) and the Turkish Cypriot Secondary School Teachers’ Union (KTOEOS) launched a lawsuit against the Ministry of Education over the college. They argued that the opening of a religious school was against the Constitution, and they demanded its closing down (Dayioglu, 2017), but they lost the court case.
Second, unlike the compulsory IRI that has constantly been offered to primary school pupils since the 1960s, the status of IRI in lower secondary schools has been modified as political power shifted over the last decade. In 2004, the main centre-left Republican Turkish Party (CTP), which has a pro-solution and pro-unification position towards the Cyprus conflict, returned to power and lifted the obligatory IRI in lower secondary schools between 2005 and 2009 (Latif, 2019). Subsequently, IRI became optional in many schools. However, this practice was discarded by the pro-partition and anti-reconciliation centre-right National Unity Party (UBP) government in 2009. At first, the implementation of obligatory IRI was postponed because of the lack of religion and morality teachers and societal reactions. However, despite reactions from secular circles, the UBP administration employed religion and morality teachers from Turkey and re-implemented compulsory IRI.
The third challenge has been the tension between parents (mostly Turkish immigrants), who want their children to have supplementary education on Islam and Qur’an beyond the formal school curriculum, and the teachers’ unions, various civil society organisations, and non-religious circles opposing this proposal. The Constitution of the TRNC prohibits children from participating in any kind of RE/RI that is not authorised by the government (cf. supra). Notwithstanding this requirement, the formerly prohibited lessons on religion and the Qur’an provided in the mosques during the summer breaks to children were re-instituted in 2004 with the support of the Turkish Embassy. Despite reactions since 2009, the Directorate of Religious Affairs has been organising religion and Qur’an teaching under the title “Summer Term Religious Course” (Dayioglu and Hatay, 2015, 163-164). This contested issue continues to be debated with respect to the lack of inspection of the learning content and the age of children attending this course in mosques (Latif, 2019, 5).
Religious Instruction in Cyprus: Inspection, Curricula, and Textbooks
Religious Instruction in the South
In the Republic of Cyprus, the Ministry of Education and Culture is responsible for the administration of state schools and educational institutions as well as for the supervision of private institutions. The Ministry of Education inspectors ensure the observance of the official curriculum, but there are no standards to measure the quality or ways of monitoring or inspecting RI at state schools in the South.
RI is in these state schools predominantly based on Orthodox Christianity, Orthodox Christian worship, and Hellenism and is, like IRI in the North, interpreted as religious instruction (RI). The subject occupies a prominent position in the pre-primary, primary, and secondary schools, and attendance is obligatory for Orthodox pupils. Non-affiliated and parents who practise another religion can request exemption for their children. The previous national curriculum of 1994 included the subject of RI under the heading Christian Orthodox Education. The catechistic-denominational content of the religious studies linked Orthodox Christianity (Christian theology) with Greek national identity (Papastephanou, 2005).
The new national curriculum of 2010 abandoned catechism, although its confessional character was maintained. The name of the subject was changed from Christian Orthodox Education to Religious Education. Although the new curriculum tried to consider the diverse conditions
Islamic Religious Education in Cyprus 73 in the educational system due to the existence of migrants and refugees from Africa, East Asia, and the Middle East, and referred to the need for promoting tolerance and mutual understanding, these references were still framed within the religious practices and beliefs of the dominant religion (Zembylas and Loukaidis, 2018, 7-9).
The main challenge of RI in the South has been the dominant Hellenic-Christian Orthodox-centric RI that “does not acknowledge the need of Muslim students or of students of other religions to learn about their religion and practise their religion freely at school” (Savvides, Osum and Deniz, 2013, 9; Hendrich, 2015). The Christian Orthodox RI curriculum neglects the goal of obtaining sufficient knowledge about other religions, including Islam. In addition, there is no possibility for pupils and teachers to have a day off for religious holidays (Emilianides, 2011b). On the other hand, religious teaching outside of school is not restricted by law in the southern part of Cyprus, and therefore Muslim children can receive IRE, IRI, and Quran classes offered by the mosque communities.
In general, the educational system of the Greek Cypriot community lacks intercultural elements, and its philosophical orientation is considered to have remained conservative since it failed to provide sufficient space for learning about other beliefs and religions. The Ministry of Education and Culture’s ongoing educational reform efforts aim to introduce comprehensive changes at all levels of the educational system in order to create a democratic and student-centred system that includes all students irrespective of social, racial, ethnic, or religious background and gender (UPR, 2019).
Religious Instruction in the North: Curricula,
Textbooks, and Inspection
In the Turkish Cypriot education system, there is no compulsory IRI for students in upper secondary state schools and at the university. IRI is, however, mandatory for Muslim students in lower secondary education (grades 6-8) as well as in the last two years of primary school (grades 4-5), where the course is scheduled for one hour per week for each level. During the first three years of primary schools, there is no IRI.
At present, most public school textbooks are written under the authority of the Educational Planning and Programme Department and published by the Turkish Cypriot Ministry of Education. However, IRI textbooks, entitled Religious Culture and Morality Knowledge, and used in primary and secondary schools were, until 2016, obtained from Turkey. These textbooks were published in Ankara by the Turkish Ministry of Education in 2015 and accepted as official textbooks following a decision of the Turkish Education Board in Turkey.
The content of learning in grade 4’s Religious Culture and Morality Knowledge textbook includes faith, worship, the Prophet Muhammad,
the Qur’an and its interpretation, morality, religion, and culture. It is composed of 128 pages with a glossary and references. The content of learning in grade 5’s Religious Culture and Morality Knowledge textbook includes faith in God, learning about worship, the Prophet Muhammad and his family life, basic teachings of the Qur’an, sharing happiness and sadness, and love of the country and nation. It is composed of 146 pages with a glossary and references. Previous content analysis of these grade 4 and grade 5 textbooks argued that their context is dominated by Sunni Islamic beliefs, doctrines, moral values, religious practices, and teachings of the Qur’an (Meral, 2015). In both volumes, there is no information given about other world religions or other Islamic sects.
As part of the Education Program of 2016, new IRI textbooks were developed by the Basic Education Program Development Project. At first, a primary school grade 4 IRI textbook was published in August
- 2016, which has been implemented since September 2016. In August
- 2017, a primary school grade 5 IRI textbook was prepared for the subsequent academic year. By 2018, new lower secondary school IRI textbooks for grades 6-8 were completed.1
The content of the new grade 4 Religious Culture and Morality Knowledge textbook includes belief, worship, morality, the Prophet Muhammad, the Holy Qur’an, and other religions. Despite the importance of learning about other religions highlighted in the 2016 education program, only 12 of the 128 pages of the textbook briefly mention other religions. The content of the new grade 5 Religious Culture and Morality Knowledge textbook comprises the same subjects: belief, worship, morality, the Prophet Muhammad, the Holy Qur’an, and other religions. The “other religions” unit covers only Christianity and provides concise information about essential principles of Christian faith, life of the Prophet Jesus, sacred texts, places of worship, and clerics. The content and scope of the new primary school Religious Culture and Morality Knowledge textbooks for the fourth and fifth grades remained predominantly focused on Sunni Islamic beliefs, practices, teachings of the Prophet Muhammad and the Holy Qur’an, Islamic manners, and moral values.
The same official Religious Culture and Morality Knowledge textbooks that are used in Turkey were implemented for grades 6-8 in lower secondary schools until 2018. A survey of these textbooks reveals that Sunni-Muslim-centric IRI in primary schools continues in the lower secondary schools. The IRI context is based on the officially sanctioned Sunni Islam in Turkey, and the textbooks promote a particular religion (Meral, 2015). Overall, there is very little space given for teaching and learning about the other world religions or other Islamic traditions.
The current lower secondary school grade 6 Religious Culture and Morality Knozvledge textbook’s scope contains God’s angels, prayers, Islamic manners, life of the Prophet Muhammad, and the formation and structure of the Qur’an and of Judaism. Under the heading
Learning About Other Religions, unit 6 covers the essential principles of Judaism, the Ten Commandments, life of the Prophet Moses, Torah and other Jewish sacred texts, Cabalist doctrine, places and practices of worship, religious holidays, festivities, and clerics. In a 168-page textbook, 16 pages are addressed to Judaism.
The learning units in grade 7’s Religious Culture and Morality Knowledge textbook include afterlife, fasting, charity, giving alms, the Prophet Muhammad’s model behaviours, teachings of the Qur’an, and non-di-vine faiths. The last unit, entitled Other Religions, begins by introducing the Japanese and Chinese religions Confucianism, Taoism, and Shintoism. It then describes Indian religions, such as Hinduism, Buddhism, Sikhism, and Jainism. These faiths and beliefs, explained throughout 22 pages, were not mentioned in the previous textbooks.
Similarly, the grade 8 Religious Culture and Morality Knoutledge textbook’s learning units focus predominantly on Sunni Islamic faith, pilgrimage and sacrifice, the relationship between religion, rights, and freedoms, the Prophet Muhammad and Ahl al-Bayt, different interpretations of Islamic thought, and interreligious dialogue. The last section consists of Islam’s view on other religions, what all religions have in common, the contribution of interfaith peace to world peace, and the principles of Islamic religion for interreligious dialogue. The overall perspective of this section is based on an Islamic worldview as well. Even though the new IRI curriculum in the 2016 education programme aimed at including knowledge of different religions and non-religious traditions, the subject content of the new textbooks remained Sunni-Muslim-centric with only brief information on other world religions and faiths.
Islamic Religious Instruction in the North: Teacher Training
In the Turkish Cypriot North, teachers have great autonomy in class to present the teaching material as they prefer. Primary school teachers take classes on IRI during their undergraduate education at the Ataturk Teacher Training Academy. In secondary schools, IRI should be taught by specialised teachers, but most schools lack competent and specialised IRI teachers. At the lower secondary level, IRI is occasionally taught by graduates of theology with pedagogy education, but it is generally taught by history, philosophy, or social studies teachers, who do not themselves take any classes on religion during their undergraduate education (Latif, 2014, 60). As a result, the religious courses have often been neglected in teacher training programmes. The practice related to in-service training in state schools is that teachers make requests for in-service training, their principals then passing these on to the Ministry of Education. IRI, however, is considered unimportant by both teachers and their principals as well as by the Ministry of Education. All teachers, including IRI teachers, were invited to in-service training to introduce the 2016 Education Programme and the new textbooks. Other than that, IRI teachers have not been called for in-service training, whereas the class and other subject teachers have periodic in-service training organised by the Ministry of Education.2
Religious Instruction in Cypriot State Schools: The Current Situation, Recent Trends & Initiatives, and Future Prospects
As can be gathered from the above, the status and content of RI in state schools is a controversial issue both in the Turkish Cypriot North and in the Greek Cypriot South. In the South, RI has serious “objections from the powerful Greek Orthodox Church to include more knowledge about other religions (especially Islam) and non-religious positions into the curricula” (Zembylas, Antoniou and Antoniou, 2018, 178). Accordingly, the Ministry of Education and Culture tries to incorporate a more multi-cultural curriculum and provide optional seminars for teachers on topics related to managing diversity and fighting discrimination in schools. Besides, non-Orthodox Christian children can be exempted from compulsory RI. However, their parents have to make an official application and disclose their religious affiliation, which is criticised by some in that this practice could lead to social exclusion.
In the Turkish Cypriot North, new textbooks and curricula for all subjects, which were to be used in primary and secondary schools as of 2018-2019, were developed within the scope of the Basic Education Programme Development Project (TEPGEP) and prepared by the Educational Planning and Programme Department. TEPGEP operated between 2006 and 2013 in cooperation with the Eastern Mediterranean University under the supervision of the Ministry of Education. For the first time, an education project would be implemented in partnership with a university, which increased hope for a more objective and scientific approach to RI/RE. Nevertheless, when the commission was established, no local pedagogical expert on RE/RI could be found; hence, the IRI curriculum and textbooks were prepared in collaboration with Turkey. Ultimately, an expert from Turkey wrote the IRI programme and textbooks, which resulted in a Sunni-centric perspective. One of its consequences was that the basic aim and philosophy of the 2016 educational programme clashed with the IRI textbooks. The Educational Planning and Programme Department detected some problems, and local education specialists and professional pedagogues intervened in the content, but the core of the textbooks remained largely unchanged.
Another problem has to do with the obligatory status of IRI in the North. After the last Turkish Cypriot parliamentary elections in January 2018, the four-party coalition government - consisting of the Republican
Turkish Party (CTP), People’s Party (HP), Communal Democracy Party (TDP), and Democratic Party (DP) - announced that they would lift the requirement for obligatory RI due to the increasing number of foreign students in Turkish Cypriot public lower secondary schools (Fehime, 2018). During the coalition government’s 16 months of rule, though, the obligatory requirement for IRI in the lower secondary school curriculum cotdd not be removed. However, new regulations, corresponding to the government’s Education Strategy Plan Vision 2030, allowed all students to opt for other lessons instead of RI based on the students’ or their parents’ request (Vatan, 2018). Following the collapse of the four-party coalition government, the ruling coalition of the UBP and HP was established in May 2019, which has not as yet made any statement with regard to the contested status of IRI. Since the current government is conservative, it can be foreseen that compulsory IRI will continue. Considering these debates, implementing an objective multi-faith RE without prioritising one particular religion and worldview could have the potential to alleviate some of the societal challenges on both sides of Cyprus.
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