British Alevi prisoners allowed visits from religious leaders

Prison inmates belonging to Turkey’s minority Alevi religion jailed in Britain are now allowed visits from their religious and spiritual leaders, a right they do not enjoy in Turkey.

Alevism is a branch of Shi’a Islam practiced in Turkey and the Balkans among ethnic Turks and Kurds, and is related to, though distinct from Alawism in Syria. Alevis make up about 20 percent of Turkish Muslims, making them the country’s largest religious minority.

The British Alevi Federation (BAF) says there are up to 350,000 Alevis living in Britain, making up about 80 percent of the Turkish speakers in the parts of north London where Turks are Kurds are most concentrated.

“Given that of the 80 percent of Turkish speakers are Alevis, we can conclude that 80 percent of prisoners who speak Turkish are also Alevi,” said İsrafil Erbil, the head of the BAF.


Previously however, there was no option for prisoners to register as Alevis when sentenced, only as Muslims. That led many to be drawn away from their faith, said Ali Yıldız, an Alevi who spent two years in jail in Britain.

“I was sorry for the young Alevi prisoners, they were going to the Friday meetings of Sunni imams and it was changing the way of their believing. But I could say that they needed to be part of something anyway, in a way they were not feeling alone,” he said.

The move to allow Alevi religious leaders to visit prisoners began two years ago when an Alevi inmate demanded the same rights as Sunni Muslims. The Justice Ministry agreed and last year the first visit took place at north London’s Pentonville prison, the BAF’s website said.

The aim of the programme is to visit Alevis in prison and introduce them to aspects of Alevi culture such as traditional music, traditions related by Alevi elder, called dedes. Once permission is given by the Justice Ministry, the aim is to roll out the programme across other prisons in Britain.

“As Alevis we want to exist in this country with our identity and we want to have equal rights. That’s why we started this progress, to support the spiritual and cultural life of our souls,” Erbil said. “There are a large number of Alevis in UK prisons and the only contact they have had is with Sunni imams. It is important that they also have the opportunity to meet members of the BAF.”

“It was not nice to see the conditions of the Alevi prisoners, but the fact that they showed interest in Alevi culture and beliefs and talked enthusiastically about Alevism … that gave us hope,” said Zeynep Demir, the deputy head of the BAF.

Özlem Şahin, the former chair of a British Alevi women’s organisation said: “I observed an imam chatting with 10 or so prisoners. Another young prisoner was speaking to a Christian priest. It is important that Alevis have access to such meetings and be visited Alevi zakirs, and Alevi dedes once or twice a week … The intention is to extend the programme to those Alevi women in prison at the same time as the programme for all Alevi prisoners.”

Alevis have never been a unified or homogeneous community and always had a variety of sub-groups. For centuries Alevis practiced their rites in secret, which created suspicion and rumour among Sunni Muslims. In Turkey, Alevis still have to struggle with this distrust, and are often regarded as heretics by the Sunni majority.

Ali Demirci is father of two. Originally from Elbistan in southeastern Turkey, he works in a shop in London. “I spent more than half of my life in different countries. There weren’t any job for us in Elbistan, so we came to here for a better life, good money and education for our kids.”

“In Turkey, they know exactly who we are. Once you are Alevi and Kurdish, then life is very hard. I am happy here, I don’t even mind to working long hours at all, at least I am recognised by this state. They teach Alevism in the schools here, we have associations, a federation. No one cares if I am Alevi Kurdish here or what,” he said.

In Turkey though Alevi prisoners are not visited by their spiritual leaders. Eren Erdem, a former opposition party parliamentarian detained in Turkey facing treason charges for leaking documents said to link the government to Islamic State, recently filed an official request to be visited by an Alevi dede. The prison denied his request.

“In Turkish law, prisoners have the right of to see their religious leaders as long as the activities are approved by the authorities of the Republic of Turkey,” said Onur Cingil, Erdem’s lawyer. “The statement is clear enough that there is no such discrimination between sects. However the decisions of authorities showed that Alevism is not included and this is a lack of human rights.”