Turkey has been discriminating against its Alevi Muslim religious minority by failing to recognise their places of worship and pay the electricity bill of their premises, the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) has ruled.
Turkey was taken to the top human rights court in 2010 by the Republican Education and Cultural Center Foundation, an Alevi organisation also known as Cem Foundation. The group objected to the state practice of not paying the electricity bills for an Istanbul cemevi – where Alevis hold rituals – while doing so for mosques, churches and synagogues.
According to Turkish law, the electricity bills for places of worship are paid from a fund administered by the Directorate of Religious Affairs, a state institution dealing with religious issues.
Tuesday’s landmark ruling comes after the conservative Justice and Development Party (AK Party) government’s announcement of planned reforms to meet Alevis’ demands.
However, these reforms were criticised by Alevi groups, as they did not change the main position of the government, failing to recognise cemevis (literally translated as gathering houses) as official places of worship.
“In the recent proposed reforms, the government offered Alevis funds without offering their sites official recognition. Alevis want cemevis and their faith to be recognised, so the proposal did not satisfy them,” Riza Turmen, a former ECHR judge and MP of the opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP), told Al Jazeera.
‘Alevism not a religion’
Ankara has long refused to offer Alevi sites official recognition. President Recep Tayyip Erdogan at various times said that Alevism was not a religion and mosques were the only places of worship in the religion of Islam.
Another Alevi complaint is that mandatory religious school courses are focused on Sunni Islam. Followers of the sect also claim that they are kept from state institution jobs.
Ahmet Iyimaya, the chairman of the parliament’s justice commission and an AK Party MP, told Al Jazeera that the government would act in line with the ruling and make the necessary steps.
“Recognition of cemevis as places of worship is already on our agenda,” he said.
Alevis, who are an ancient part of this nation, wished their rights were given by Turkey's democracy, rather than Europe.
“The ECHR judgment is good news. However, Alevis, who are an ancient part of this nation, wished their rights were given by Turkey’s democracy, rather than Europe,” Cengiz Hortoglu, the chairman of Anatolia Alevi Bektashi Federation, said.
Izzettin Dogan, the chairman of Cem Foundation, the organisation that sued Turkey, called the verdict “historic”.
An estimated 10 to 15 million people in Turkey, a country of 76 million, belong to the Alevi sect. A 2012 research report by Sabaht Akkiraz, an MP of the CHP, estimated that there were 12.5 million Alevis in Turkey.
Alevis – no relation to the Alawites of Syria – mix Islam, Sufi and Anatolian folk traditions in their practices and philosophy. However, like Alawites, they are followers of Ali, a caliph in Islamic history and a relative of Prophet Muhammad.
The Cem Foundation argued that as a result of Ankara’s non-recognition, the Yenibosna Centre, the cemevi in question, raked up unpaid bills amounting to more than 668,000 Turkish liras (close to $300,000).
In the verdict, a panel of seven judges at the Strasbourg-based court established that the Yenibosna Centre included a room for ceremonies and rituals, a basic part of the practice of Alevism.
The ECHR also concluded that the cemevi provided funeral services and its activities were of non-profit nature.
“[The Court] noted that Turkish law reserved the exemption from payment of electricity bills to recognised places of worship and that by excluding cemevis from the benefit of that status, it introduced a difference in treatment on the ground of religion,” the ECHR said.
In the ruling, the EHCR invited Ankara to send a proposal regarding the cemevi in question.
The verdict is not final as there is an appeal process. In case of no appeal, the verdict will be final in three months.
‘Change does not happen overnight’
AK Party MP Iyimaya told Al Jazeera that since Alevis recognised cemevis as their sites of worship, it was unquestionable that the state has to recognise these places and grant them the same concessions it does to other places of worship.
“Speaking in terms of democratic practices, religious groups in a country should decide if a premise is a place of worship, not the state and laws,” he said.
“This has not happened up until today, because cultural divides in a country do not transform overnight. The codes of democracy have recently been penetrated into the society. We are trying to walk in a path that is not in conflict with the perceptions of the society,” he added
However, Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu’s first response to the ruling was brief. “This is not a situation that will have impact on our efforts. We will move on our own path,” he said.
Davutoglu gathered Alevi representatives at his office on Tuesday only hours after the verdict was announced.
In a recent visit to Tunceli, an Alevi-majority city, he promised to stand strongly with Alevis and “personally follow” all acts of discrimination, but he fell short of promising official recognition for their faith.
Former ECHR judge Turmen told Al Jazeera that it was the fifth decision by the ECHR on the Alevi issue and Turkey could not settle this problem without implementing them, adding that acts for show would not resolve the issue.
Turmen said: “Visiting cemevis or meeting the seniors of the faith would not do the government any benefit. Alevis want these verdicts, which are binding according to the European Convention of Human Rights, to be implemented. If the government has the will to solve this issue, these verdicts should be implemented.”
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