An Interview with Viana Eriksson – President of the Cyprus Humanist Association

To begin with, tell us a few things about the Cyprus Humanist Association. 

The Cyprus Humanist Association (CHA) is a newly founded organisation which promotes humanism, a secular state, equal human rights and equal treatment of everyone regardless of religion or belief. The Association formed in 2015. For about two years, we have been working as an informal group, and just this year we have been officially registered as an NGO. We started as a small group of five people sharing the same interests, thoughts, and ambitions; and since then we have been growing quite quickly, and today we count close to 100 registered members. We are so pleasantly surprised with our sudden growth and we are grateful that people so positively embrace our efforts and support our cause.

The need to start the Cyprus Humanist Association was highlighted by the continuous and systematic violation of the Cyprus secular constitution which safeguards freedom of religious belief and equality of all religions before the law and by the state’s failure to separate public matters from the Church. On a more personal level, however, I decided it was time to try to make a difference by doing everything in my power to help make Cyprus a real secular state instead of the pseudosecular state it is now. Church has its tentacles in all aspects of Cypriot life, and with its power it manages to influence media, politicians, education, the reunification process and even banks. We felt it was the time that someone should drag Cyprus kicking and screaming into the European secular worldview so that the blurred line separating Church and State is finally made unambiguous and clear.

Which are the main goals of the Cyprus Humanist Association and what does it want to achieve?

CHA aims to promote and increase the understanding of Humanism as a positive world-view that encourages individuals to live informed and meaningful lives that aspire to the greater good. The positions we hold and the actions we take are not simply for our own benefit, but for the betterment of the whole of society and the world in which we live. We aim to bring together people who seek to live ethical lives on the basis of reason and humanity and we strive to bring about a society which completely separates religion from state and advocates equality, humanist values for all and non-discrimination on all grounds.

The main goals of the CHA are to:

  1. Promote Humanism as a secular approach based on critical thinking, scientific enquiry, democratic principles and equal human rights for all, regardless of sex, religion, disability, age, sex, sexual orientation, gender identity and expression, political or any other affiliation.
  2. Support integration and equal treatment of all individuals in a socially sensitive state without discrimination and prejudices where individuals can freely exercise their fundamental rights.
  3. Defend the principle of State – Church/Religion Separation.
  4. Make a positive contribution to Humanism, nationally, by providing a forum for humanists to meet and to develop a sense of a local community of humanists within the wider community.

Which do you believe are the main challenges that Humanism faces in Cyprus?

Cyprus is a small island with a very homogeneous population of less than a million. To define “homogeneous” in our context would mean the Greek Cypriot Orthodox majority, where almost everybody is related to each other, one way or another. Over the past few thousand years Cyprus has constantly been invaded, occupied or otherwise directed by foreign forces. Only in the last 57 years has Cyprus become an independent state but the “us” versus “them” is still very much culturally ingrained.  This makes it extremely difficult for any new value system to gain any type of traction. In a closed society, like Cyprus is today, it demands a very strong conviction and resolve to openly declare yourself as a humanist because of family, social and cultural pressures.

Another crucial challenge that Humanism faces in Cyprus is removing the influence of the Church from the educational system. Commonly, the Minister of Education appointee has to have the blessing of the Church. Furthermore, any reforms regarding history and religious education have to satisfy the demands of the Church. Over the last year, a large part of our time has gone to help parents fight for their children’s religious freedom in school. It is common practice that children must do morning prayer everyday in the classroom. Priests regularly visit and hold lessons in schools and in many cases this is unbeknown to parents. There is even an education ministry decree mandating that children attend a Greek orthodox mass at least three times a year. In addition, the confessional religious educational model used in Cyprus, clearly favors the Greek Orthodox majority.  All the above, evidently, violate the religious neutrality of a public school in a secular state.

The fact that the Church is always meddling into the political life of the island also makes it extremely difficult for any new progressive law or bill to pass in the parliament. Almost all politicians identify themselves as religious and the vast majority of political parties applaud the involvement of Church in politics. It is for this reason that almost all political parties made conscious delays for passing the cohabitation agreement bill, fail to revise the outdated bill regarding abortions and hesitate to abolish the existing blasphemy laws. As humanists we are committed to take on all the big challenges.  Big accomplishments do not come without big challenges.

It seems to me that people are reluctant in identifying as atheists, agnostics, or non-religious in Cyprus. According to the 2011 census, 89.1% of people living in the government-controlled area of Cyprus, are Orthodox Christians. To what extent do you believe this number corresponds to reality?

It is true that almost a decade ago it was extremely difficult for an atheist or a non-religious person to come out and be openly secular. Even today, there are nonreligious people who would hide or deny their lack of belief or agnosticism due to their fear of being stigmatised by society. The census previous to 2011 did not even have an option for atheists/non-religious and therefore, did not allow them to be counted.

The 2011 census clearly shows a vast majority of people with a high percentage of 89.1% identifying as Christian Orthodox. What needs to be stressed, however, is that with a deeper analysis of these results,  22.7% of the Christian Orthodox percentage were children under 19 years old who were born into it. In my view, children under the age of 18 should not be registered as belonging or not belonging to any religion. They should not be counted until they are given a free choice to decide for themselves what to believe or not to believe in.

Another point that needs to be highlighted in the 2011 census is that the atheist/non-religious percentage is almost equal to the Armenian and the Maronite Churches, considered as minorities in Cyprus, combined. The reason why this is interesting is because the Armenian and Maronite Churches are given special dispensations in the constitution due to historical reasons. In today’s modern society this makes less and less sense. Of course, I do not mean that these two Churches should be stripped of their special dispensations alone. Ideally, all religions should have their dispensations scrapped from the constitution in a true secular state.

Having said that, the high percentage of Christian Orthodox does not surprise me and, personally, I think that even though in reality it may be a little bit lower, mostly because of “default bias,” it is still a significant majority. Of course, as is the case with all religions, they are people who just carry the label and do not care; and on the other edge, there are those who truly believe.

Do you think the Orthodox Church in Cyprus is privileged?

Yes. As the Orthodox Church is the dominant Church in Cyprus, it is granted the state-protected religious denomination financial privileges. The Orthodox Church is one of the biggest land owners of the island and does not pay any VAT or income tax. In 2015, it became public knowledge that the state pays out a stipend to some 700 priests at the annual cost of more than 6 million Euros (6.4 million dollars or 5.1 million pounds).

Another point that shows how powerful the Greek Orthodox Church’s position is, is the fact that in the constitution the Archbishop, who is the Head of the Church, is second in command after the President. This obviously leads to unwarranted political reverence towards the Archbishop who was never elected by any democratic process.

A third and final point is that both the media and the politicians, no matter the issue, will always ask for the Church’s opinion. Be it science, transportation, education, communication, healthcare etc.

To what extent would you say that Cyprus is a secular country?

On a purely theoretical level, the legal framework and the constitution have the appearance of a secular state. In practice, however, as I have mentioned above, Cyprus has theocratic tendencies in all state functions. Nevertheless, the fact that one can be an atheist or non-religious without fear of legal repercussions is a good start.

What is the current status of blasphemy laws in Cyprus?

Unfortunately, Cyprus is among the few European countries whose legal framework continues to restrict freedom of expression in matters relating to religion. Specifically, Section 141 of the Cyprus Criminal Code criminalises expression with intent to wound religious feelings and Section 142 criminalises publication of opinion which can be considered by any class of people as a public insult to their religion, with intent to vilify such religion or to shock or insult believers in such religion. This, however, contradicts article 19 of the constitution which clearly states that “every person has the right to freedom of speech and expression in any form.”

Hence, Cyprus Humanists strongly support the decriminalisation of blasphemy laws because they violate the human right to freedom of expression, they protect religious beliefs and practices from constructive and necessary criticism and they forbid and punish unpopular expression which is vital to the functioning of free modern democratic societies. Last year, the Cyprus Humanist Association, along with more than fifty other human rights and humanist organisations from around the world, stood solidly with the Greek Humanists and signed an open letter to the Greek government demanding to follow through on its commitment to freedom of thought and expression, and finally abolish its blasphemy laws. This year, CHA is taking part in the campaign “End Blasphemy Laws worldwide,” and we will endeavor to repel the current blasphemy laws that exist in the Cyprus Criminal Code.

Were you always a Humanist? If no, how and why did you become one?

I grew up in a traditional Christian Orthodox home, and as my grandfather was a Greek Orthodox priest, we were attending church most Sundays. My religious upbringing, however, was not strict indoctrination. It was more of a cultural osmosis. At this point, it is important to note that by the age of 20, I had only been exposed to the Greek Orthodox culture and had an education with a very superficial exposure to other religions. Atheism and non-religiosity were unknown terms back then. Despite my environment, as a teenager, I questioned everything and started to ask for proof. After years of philosophical questioning about the meaning and origin of life, I finally realised I was a Humanist when I started reading about Humanism five years ago. For me, it was never a decision to become or not to become a Humanist. It was something that I felt I always was before I came across the Humanist label. To me, Humanism is doing good without the fairytales.

What public actions has the Cyprus Humanist Association been involved in?

Our  biggest annual event which has grown significantly is Darwin Day. Both Darwin Day 2016 and 2017 gathered a large crowd and gained island-wide recognition. Last year, we participated in a local event for the Day of Action for Refugees and organised our first group Blood Donation Day. We also took part in the Cyprus Pride 2016 and marched alongside thousands of people for LGBT+ rights. This year, we are organising a children’s book presentation about the first book written in Cyprus for children concerning LGBT+ issues. We, in addition, regularly publish articles and interact with the media about issues related to Humanism.

Our first 2016 campaign which lasted almost a year, named “Religious Education: Know your rights,” aimed to inform the public about religious freedom in schools. The campaign was fruitful and many parents approached us asking for help or advice. Last October, the Cyprus Ombudswoman concluded in her report that Cyprus Humanist Association was right to claim that schools must not take children to church to practice religion such as worshipping the holy remains of saints as this is a religious practice that violates the religious neutrality that schools should project in a secular state. After CHA filed an official complaint, the Ombudswoman clearly stressed to the Ministry of Education that such practices must be immediately stopped and we believe that this was the starting point for schools to reevaluate their actions regarding this issue.

This month, we officially became members of two big Humanist movements, the International Humanist and Ethical Union (IHEU) and the European Humanist Federation (EHF) in order to get involved with the wider humanist community.

Lastly, where can one find out more information about the Cyprus Humanist Association?

Our official website www.cyprushumanists.org is the easiest and fastest way to contact us and find out more about CHA, our news and events. Our website is currently being translated to English but we also have a Facebook page and a Facebook group. People can also follow us on Twitter and those who are interested in joining us, they can now do it online through our website.

 

 

 

 

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About Angelos Sofocleous 9 Articles
Angelos is a blogger, an activist and a student at the University of Durham

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