ISTANBUL // With a rally in the capital, members of the liberal Muslim minority Turkish Alevis have drawn attention to what they say is discrimination by the Sunni majority and by authorities, challenging a system in which religion is strictly controlled by the state. Between 50,000 and 100,000 Alevis gathered in Ankara on Sunday to voice their demands, which include a call to abolish the religious affairs directorate, the central religious authority of the Turkish state. Alevis also want an end to regulations that force their children to take part in religious lessons in state schools they say concentrate on Sunni Islam.
The demonstration highlighted the problems that Turkey's version of secularism, which stresses the need to keep religion under tight state supervision, can cause for religious minorities watched with suspicion by the majority. Alevis said the religious affairs directorate, which runs all mosques in the country and pays the imams, has been promoting a strictly Sunni interpretation of the faith without taking other leanings into account.
"A secular state does not invest in religion, it must not organise religion and it must not take money out of the general budget" for religious purposes, Ali Balkiz told the crowd. Mr Balkiz leads the Alevi Bektasi Federation, a leading Alevi association, which organised the meeting. "This is why we want to abolish the religious affairs directorate." The government, however, immediately rejected the demands. Acknowledging that the Alevis face some problems in Turkey, Said Yazicioglu, a state minister, dismissed the calls coming from the Ankara meeting. "We do not take note of ideas coming from the fringes," Mr Yazicioglu, whose ministry supervises the religious affairs directorate, told journalists.
An estimated 10 million to 15m Turks, about 15 per cent to 20 per cent of the population, belong to the Alevi community, which is considered close to Shia Islam because of the central role that Imam Ali plays in the Alevi faith. Alevis have their own fasting period. They do not pray in mosques, but in places of worship they call cem houses, or gathering houses, where a dance of men and women forms an important part of the ritual.
Some Sunnis see Alevis as heretics, which is why Alevis feel under particular pressure from the religiously conservative Justice and Development Party, or AKP, of Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the prime minister, because the AKP represents the Sunni mainstream. The cem houses are not officially recognised as places of worships like mosques and churches but as cultural centres. There are 900 officially registered cem houses in Turkey, compared to almost 78,000 mosques.
"AKP, get your hands off my religion," was one slogan that was shouted at the Ankara rally. A poster read: "Against discrimination - rights as equal citizens". Mr Balkiz said the government was only paying lip service to the Alevis's demands for equality. "So far, we have received only a 'we love you'," he said. "There is no concrete answer for what 'we love you' means." One of the Alevi demands is that the Madimak Hotel in the central Anatolian city of Sivas be turned into a museum. In 1993, an Islamist mob protesting against a meeting of Alevis in the hotel laid fire to the building, resulting in the death of 33 people. During the Ankara rally, the names of the victims were read out one by one.
Mr Balkiz said Alevis were under pressure from the Sunni majority. Some go to Sunni mosques and keep the fast during Ramadan to blend in with Sunnis. "Only on retiring after 35 years do they come to the cem houses," he told Radikal, a daily newspaper. He also said it was difficult for Alevis to be promoted to top posts in the state and even the military. "They want to become generals, governors and parliamentary deputies as well."
Mr Erdogan has promised to do more for the Alevis, but those efforts have produced few results. In June, an Alevi AKP member of parliament resigned from his position as an adviser to the prime minister, saying that "promises have not been kept". According to press reports, the deputy, Reha Camuroglu, was frustrated by a lack of will within the government to improve the situation of the Alevis. When he became Mr Erdogan's adviser late last year, Mr Camuroglu said there would be efforts to recognise cem houses as places of worship and give Alevi religious leaders the status of state religious officials. Both projects have yet to be realised.
Mr Camuroglu was said to have been particularly upset by a comment from a fellow AKP deputy, Mehmet Cicek, a former vice president of the religious affairs directorate. "In mosques, people pray, but in cem houses they dance," Mr Cicek was quoted as saying in a television show that a cem house could not be an "alternative to a mosque". Support for the Alevis has come from the European Union, which has accused the Turkish government of not doing enough to strengthen the rights of the minority. In 2007, the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg, France ordered Turkey to end its practice of compulsory religious lessons with a stress on Sunni positions for all Muslim pupils. But Ankara had still not implemented the decision, the European Union said last week in a major report on Turkey's progress as a candidate for membership.
"Turkey needs to make further efforts to create an environment conducive to full respect for freedom of religion in practice and to carry out consistent initiatives aimed at improving dialogue with the various religious communities," the report said. email@example.com