The European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) will hold a hearing on June 3 to discuss whether the fact that cemevis, Alevi houses of worship, are not legally recognized by the Turkish state violates the articles on discrimination in the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR).
In a bid to gain official government recognition for Alevi houses of worship, president of the prominent Alevi civil society group, Cem Foundation, İzzettin Doğan applied in 2010 to the ECtHR, seeking help to end “decades of official discrimination” against the 6-12 million-strong minority community. Members of the Cem Foundation released a written statement on Monday in which they stated that the foundation is in the process of preparing for the hearing that will be held in Salzburg, Austria, on June 3.
“Two thousand people affiliated with the Cem Foundation initially brought suits against the Turkish Prime Ministry at an Ankara administrative court on Sept. 23, 2005, on the grounds that the Prime Ministry had rejected our previous demand for the official recognition of cemevis. Following the Ankara court’s rejection, we appealed the decision at the Council of State in 2010. However, the Council of State affirmed the judgment of the Ankara court and denied our appeal. Within the same year, [Cem Foundation] President İzzettin Doğan announced that all [avenues applying to] domestic authorities had been exhausted and thus, applied to ECtHR,” the foundation statement said.
The status of Alevi cemevis has been an issue of contention in Turkey. Churches, mosques and synagogues, recognized by the state as houses of worship, are provided with utilities free of charge. However, cemevis have not been legally recognized by the Turkish state since the passage of the 1925 Closure of Dervish Lodges Law, which shuttered the country’s Sufi orders, dervish lodges and other non-orthodox centers of Islamic worship.
Alevis practice a form of Shiite Islam that mixes Sufism with ancient traditions of Anatolian folk culture in a form of worship largely unique to present-day Turkey. Just what defines Alevism, however, varies widely within the religious community. The country’s Alevi population, estimated to be around 10 million, uses houses of worship known as cemevis rather than mosques as their centers of worship. While the government does not formally recognize the status of cemevis as houses of worship, state leaders have given them some implicit recognition with visits — including a cemevi visit by then-President Abdullah Gül in the predominately Alevi city of Tunceli in 2009.
Alevis are hopeful about their application, since the ECtHR has previously ruled several times in favor of the Alevi community in Turkey. In December of last year, the ECtHR ruled that Turkey’s failure to exempt cemevis from paying their electricity bills violates the article on discrimination in the ECHR.
The court announced a verdict in a case filed against Turkey by the Foundation for Republican Education and Culture, which manages many cemevis in Turkey, on Dec. 2 of last year in which it stated that the cost of electricity for places of worship should be covered by funds from the Religious Affairs Directorate, arguing that the fact that cemevis are deprived of this privilege constitutes discrimination, which is prohibited by the ECHR. The court referred to Article 14 (the prohibition of discrimination) and Article 9 (the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion).