Page last updated at 05:14 GMT, Wednesday, 19 March 2008

Turkish minority sect pushes for rights

By Sarah Rainsford
BBC News, Istanbul

In a suburb of Istanbul, hundreds of men and women worship side by side in a hexagonal wood-panelled hall.

Turkish Alevis praying
Turkey's Alevis say they suffer from official discrimination
A preacher paces the polished floorboards before them clutching a microphone, more Christian evangelist than Imam. Cross-legged on the floor, the crowd sway and shout their response.

Several times during the weekly service, a musician strums on his wooden saz and sings.

It is a long way from the traditional image of Muslims at prayer.

This congregation are Alevis - an unorthodox, liberal branch of Islam. It is estimated that as many as one in five Turks worships this way, although there are no official figures.

The Sunnis thought that we would turn the lights out in our Cemevi and have orgies
Ali Kenanoglu

But in a country where most Muslims are Sunni, many Alevis complain they feel like second-class citizens.

"We want recognition and legal status for our prayer houses," explains Kamil Aykanat, the head of Okmeydani Alevi community in Istanbul.

"Instead, the state builds Sunni mosques in Alevi villages and teaches Sunni Islam in our schools. Our children have even been beaten for not fasting when Sunnis do," he says.

Lingering prejudice

Turkey is a strictly secular republic with no official religion.

But figures provided for the BBC by the Directorate for Religious Affairs show that the state spends $1.5bn of taxpayers' money each year funding 85,000 Sunni mosques and paying the wages of their Imams.

By contrast Alevi prayer houses - or Cemevi - can be registered only as cultural centres and are funded exclusively by private donations.

"Historically, the Sunnis were always the administrators here and they thought the Alevis followed a perverted form of Islam. They thought that we would turn the lights out in our Cemevi, and have orgies," says Ali Kenanoglu - an Alevi from Istanbul.

Children's text book showing Sunni method of prayer
Turkish text books show the Sunni way of prayer, not the Alevis'
He says urbanisation has helped fuel greater understanding but it is difficult to eradicate centuries-old prejudice entirely.

The community says one crucial issue to address is education.

Christian children are automatically exempt from obligatory religious classes in Turkey. But as an Alevi, Ali had to go to court to fight for the right to exclude his child.

"These books teach children how to be a good Sunni," Ali complains, flicking through the pages of his son's textbook which shows a young boy adopting the correct pose to pray.

"They show children how to do Namaz and they have to memorise prayers in Arabic. But Alevis don't pray like this. There is no proper teaching in here about our faith," Ali says.

Under pressure from the EU, the textbooks were amended recently but remain highly Sunni-centric. The classes themselves are generally taught by Sunni graduates of religious Imam-Hatip schools.

Last year the European Court of Human Rights upheld the right of an Alevi child to opt out of religion classes.

That ruling is still not being applied in Turkish schools - to the frustration of Alevi parents.

EU concerns

But there are some signs of change.

Earlier this year, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, a devout Sunni, attended a fast-breaking dinner for members of the Alevi community.

After years of state hostility, many Alevis stayed away. One group even decreed that any members who attended would be labelled as outcasts.

Alevi Cemevi, or prayer hall
The Alevis are a unorthodox, liberal branch of Islam
The event was organised by an Alevi member of parliament from the governing AK party, who says he has been instructed to address Alevi concerns.

"Our prime minister openly accepted the Alevi community, that is very important. No government before could do this," Reha Camuroglu explains in the garden of the Turkish parliament.

He describes himself as an activist for Alevi rights for 20 years.

"We declared that there are Alevis in Turkey, these Alevis have problems - and those problems should be solved," he adds.

Reha Camuroglu said he would begin meeting Alevi leaders in March to discuss their complaints in-depth, and consult them on possible solutions. The legal status of the Cemevi and issues surrounding education should be on the table.

Three weeks into the month those meetings still have not begun though.

Religious equality and full religious freedom are key principles of the European Union, which Turkey is currently negotiating to join.

The EU regularly cites the situation of Muslim - as well as non-Muslim - minorities here as a concern, referring to the "major difficulties" they encounter.

The government has now indicated it understands that concern, a move welcomed in Brussels.

Made sceptical by long experience, most Alevis are waiting for concrete proof it is prepared to act on it.

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