The Ankara 16th Court of First Instance announced on Tuesday its reasoning behind its dismissal of a closure case against the Çankaya Cemevi Building Association filed by the Ankara Governor’s Office against the association for defining a cemevi — where Alevis gather to pray — as a “house of worship” in its bylaws.
The decision handed down on Oct. 4 by Judge Yaşar Eren to reject the case stated that “Alevi cemevis or cem houses have been socially known and accepted as places of worship for centuries. The provision that cemevis are places of worship, which was included in the association’s bylaws, is not in conflict with Article 2 of the Turkish Constitution and there is not a law that prohibits this in the Turkish Constitution.”
Pointing out that there is a basic, fundamental right to freedom of religion or belief for all people, communities and organizations that is protected under international human rights treaties and Article 24 of the Turkish Constitution — in which it is referred to as “freedom of religion and conscience” — the court decision included a statement that “we cannot say Alevism is a faith, but it is a belief system like Sufism, Hanafism, Malikism, Shafi’ism and Bektashism.”
Because of the court’s decision, cemevis can now be legally defined as places of worship, lawyers said with regards to the precedent established by the rejection of the closure case. The non-recognition of cemevi as places of worship is based on an opinion held by the Religious Affairs Directorate that is not legally binding in Turkish law. A memo sent by the Religious Affairs Directorate to the Interior Ministry on Dec. 17, 2004 stated that “it is not possible to consider cemevis and other [such] places as places of worship because Alevism, which is a sub-group of Islam, cannot have a place of worship other than mosques or mescit that are common places of worship within Islam.”
The Associations Directorate of the Interior Ministry on March 30, 2005 sent a letter to the Ankara Governor’s Office referring to this opinion. The Interior Ministry asked for the association to remove references to cemevis as places of worship from its bylaws. The association refused to comply, stating that for all Alevis, cemevis are accepted as places of worship. The governor’s office then filed a case with the Ankara Prosecutor’s Office to close down the association. Prosecutors wanted to shut down the association, arguing that a cemevi cannot legally be deemed a house of worship
However, the right to establish, own and maintain places of worship is a fundamental part of the right to freedom of religion or belief that is included in the Turkish Constitution under the Article 24 as well as international human rights afforded everyone, such as by Article 18 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, to which Turkey is a party. However, religious communities in Turkey face serious obstacles — both formal and informal — that prevent them from fully exercising this right. In Turkey, the Directorate of Religious Affairs has the right to open mosques and administer them. Alevi or any other religious communities can only build other places of worship, such as cemevis, privately. They cannot legally own buildings of this type.