Turkey’s Alevi minority demands recognition of places of worship

The lack of state support given to Turkey’s minority Alevi community has left many feeling ostracised by the government.

One of the long-standing issues cited by many in the Alevi community is legal recognition of their cemevis, or place of worship, a promise that has yet to be fulfilled. Alevism is a branch of Islam that combines Shi’ite, Sufi, and Sunni traditions. But because many Alevis believe in secularism and drink alcohol, many groups in Turkey refuse to see them as Muslims.

The number of Alevi places of worship has risen dramatically in recent years. In 2000 there were 300 cemevis in Turkey, a number that soared to more than 900 in 2013.

President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) promised during the campaign for elections in June to classify cemevis as official places of worship.

But the Islamist party has not mentioned the issue again and it was not included in the government’s 100-day action plan unveiled in early August.

“Why doesn’t the AKP fulfil any of its promises? As an Alevi in this country, I feel like a second-class citizen," said Zeynep Gülhisar, who goes to Istanbul’s Karacaahmet Sultan Dergahi Cemevi once a week.

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Some estimate that Alevis make up as much as 25 percent of Turkey’s 80-million population, making them the country’s largest religious minority. But official figures are hard to come by as Alevism is not officially recognised as a faith, but are counted as Muslim, along with the Sunni majority.

The election promise appears to be a broader trend. The AKP, in power for 16 years, has organised Alevi workshops as part of what it calls its “Alevi opening” initiative, but no concrete steps have been made.

"To this day, nine workshops have taken place. As a result of these workshops, we weren’t given any rights,” said Hüseyin Güzelgül, president of the Alevi Bektashi Faith Council and the Alevi Bektashi Federation. “The AKP's electoral promise was a policy of re-election ... Until now, no one has gotten in touch with us. It's obvious which institutions represent Alevis. If they are carrying out work with their own followers based on what they want without getting opinions from us, then this doesn’t represent Alevis."

Alevi

The workshops have failed to meet the demands of the Alevi community, said Ali Kenanoğlu, member of parliament deputy for the pro-Kurdish opposition Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP).

"When they say legal status, we don't know what type of status they are referring to. This is because they previously suggested several statuses during Alevi workshops. We rejected the statuses that were suggested at the time. Their suggestion was not to give cemevis a place of worship status," he said.

The bulk of the work has already been completed in providing legal recognition to cemevis, and by extension, the entire Alevi community. In 2016, the European Court of Human Rights ruled in favour of officially recognising cemevis and providing employment for faith leaders. Turkey’s Supreme Court  agreed.

Gani Kaplan, president of the Pir Sultan Abdal Cultural Association, said that due to the court’s decision, there was not much more to be done.

"The only thing that is needed to be done is for the cemevis to be added in the related article about places of worship next to mosques, synagogues, churches, and temples. But the AKP might instead be carrying out works in the way of cultural houses related to cemevis. We won't accept that either,” he said.

In 2012, Erdoğan, then-prime minister said: “A cemevi is not a place of worship, it is a centre for cultural activities. Muslims should only have one place of worship.” Erdoğan also insisted on naming the third bridge across the Bosporus after a 16th century Ottoman sultan said to have massacred some 40,000 Alevis.

Not having official recognition and protection has meant the Alevi community is largely ignored by the state. Legal status would allow the Alevi community to receive financial support from the Directorate of Religious Affairs, which is estimated to have an £1.3 billion budget this year.

Ilham Bütün, a dede, or Alevi spiritual leader, said the lack of funding put a strain on the Alevi community.

"The AKP says that they have marked a new era in democracy, but they are incapable of even implementing the 'd' in democracy. Since dedes don't have rights, they make their living by working in other odd jobs. For this reason, the cemevis are not able to provide services since they don't have knowledgeable staff … Alevis are not able to express themselves."

Representatives from the Alevi community are set to meet to discuss the issue in early September, but some believe that discrimination by the Sunni majority is a more pressing problem than the legal status of cemevis.

“The leading topic that needs to be discussed is this: Alevis in this country have security concerns. Second, there is the food and job problem. You cannot find a job as someone of the Alevi faith, you cannot get a job in the public sector, you are fired from the private sector,” Kenanoğlu said.

Others believe Alevis should prioritise seeking the legalisation of cemevis.

“Once the cemevi status is realised, then the other items will come as a matter of course," said Erdoğan Döner, chairman of the Cem Foundation, another Alevi organisation.