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European court hears Alevi demands to cover cemevi expenses

The European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) held a grand chamber hearing on June 3 over a case concerning the rejection of a demand made by a number of Turkish Alevis that the state cover the expenses of cemevis, their houses of worship.

A total of 203 Alevis applied to the ECHR after their request for the provision of a religious public service was rejected by the Turkish state, with the applicants saying they had been discriminated against, unlike Turkey’s Sunni citizens. The applicants also maintain that the Turkish state has not fulfilled its duty of neutrality and impartiality with regard to religious beliefs.

During the hearing on June 3, Turkey’s lawyer denied the claims of discrimination against the Alevi community on the grounds that they could perform their religious practices freely.

“Our government believes that there has been no interference with the applicants’ right to freedom of religion. They can gather together and practice their belief freely. There has been no interference. The government did not block their bank accounts nor did it ban their activities. This has been acknowledged by the applicants as well,” said the Turkish government’s lawyer.

Speaking on the issue of covering the expenses of the cemevis, the lawyer claimed that Alevi communities in Turkey did not agree on the exact definition of Alevism.

“Neither our government nor your court can make a definition of Alevism. The applicants also accept that Alevism is one of the Sufi interpretations of Islam. Alevism is not a religion independent of Islam, it is an interpretation of Islam,” he said.

However, the applicants claimed that they had been exposed to discrimination despite the fact that there are 20 million Alevi people living in Turkey in a population of over 70 million.

“Alevis have been there right from the start of Islam. There is discrimination. It is violation of the European values and secularism,” said Namık Sofuoğlu, the lawyer for the applicants.

“For Alevis, the cem is a religious practice, although the government insists that there is no consensus among the Alevis about it. The cem is where Alevis gather play instruments and pray. It is a religious practice. There is no dispute between the Alevis that the cem is a religious practice or not. Alevis never discuss it,” Sofuoğlu also added during the hearing.

“The representative of government did not openly say it, but he implied that the cem is not a religious practice. Isn’t it a way of imposing on us that what constitutes the practicing of Alevism and what is not?” he said, while criticizing the defense of the Turkish government. “There is no interference in our practices.

What is the problem then? Religious services are provided by the government in Turkey and the state is taking some positive resources such as providing the necessary services to mosques and masjids. We are here claiming that the state has violated our rights [by not providing these resources to cemevis as well],” he said.

The court is expected to conclude its ruling on the case in between six months and a year.

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