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High Court exempts cemevis from paying bills, ending decades-long discrimination

In what appears to be an implicit recognition of cemevis as official places of worship, the Supreme Court of Appeals has overruled a lower court's decision that ordered the Cem Foundation, a prominent Alevi civil society group, to pay electricity bills despite an earlier European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) decision on the issue.

The ECtHR ruled on Dec. 2 of last year that Turkey’s failure to exempt cemevis — Alevi places of worship — from paying their electricity and water bills violates Article 14 on the prohibition of discrimination and Article 9 on the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion as laid out in the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR).

Following the decision, the Cem Foundation decided not to pay the electricity and water bills to protest the fact that the ruling Justice and Development Party (AK Party) government continues to charge cemevis for these services. However, after the bills accrued over months the Boğaziçi Electricity Distribution Company (BEDAŞ) filed a foreclosure suit against the foundation and the Bakırköy 5th Criminal Court ordered the “immediate” payment of the electricity and water bills.

However, on behalf of the Cem foundation a group of lawyers appealed the court’s decision on the grounds that “Cemevis are places of worships and thereby cannot be discriminated as the state has to treat all faith groups in the country equally.” The Supreme Court of Appeals on Monday overruled an earlier court decision on the grounds that cemevis can be considered places of worship since the Turkish civil code does not clearly define places of worship. The court also relied on Articles 14 and 9 of the ECHR in its decision.

Speaking to the press following the announcement of the decision, Erhan Arslaer, a lawyer representing the foundation, said that this decision is a clear judicial recognition that Cemevis are places of worships.

Turkey’s Alevi population, estimated to be anywhere between 6 and 15 million, uses cemevis rather than mosques as centers of worship and prayer. Cemevis are not officially recognized as houses of worship by the Turkish state and therefore do not receive public funding for expenses as Sunni mosques do.

In accordance with the federation’s decision, the Garip Dede Cemevi also refused to pay its electricity and water bills and was fined on March 22 for civil disobedience.

The head of the Garip Dede Cemevi, Celal Fırat, had previously told the press that water and electricity cuts were expected, adding, “If necessary we will refuse to pay taxes and we will fight to the bitter end.” Fırat pointed out that Alevis use the cemevi for funerals and currently cannot find water to bathe the deceased. He said Alevi people are being discriminated against and that the government has to protect their rights as long as they fulfill their civic duties.

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. While the government does not formally recognize the status of cemevis as places of worship, state leaders have implicitly recognized them via visits, including a visit to a cemevi by former President Abdullah Gül in the predominately Alevi city of Tunceli in 2009.

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