“This will be a culture and information class that will include instruction on all religions. Children should know about what religion is even if they are atheists. With your support, we will make it possible to have such a class during the 2011-2012 school year. This is not religious education, this class is informational. Education and instruction will not be mixed,” Çelik said yesterday, addressing more than 3,500 people at the Bostancı Performance Center (BGM) where international leaders from Alevi organizations gathered for their fifth meeting under the leadership of Turkey's Cem Foundation.
Regarding another critical demand of the Alevis, official recognition of their houses of worship, which are called cemevi, the minister said that three alternatives about the issue will be presented to the Council of Ministers in 10 days.
Opinion leaders well respected in the Alevi community, both from Turkey and the Alevi Diaspora in Europe, came together yesterday at a convention, where State Minister Faruk Çelik said religion courses in Turkey’s schools should concentrate on teaching about all religions and their relevant cultures, rather than focusing on a particular religion
“Cemevis should have a status. When there is no status, there cannot be talk about budget allocations. We are struggling to grant a legal status to cemevis,” he said referring to the legal commission established following the work of several workshops in relation to the government’s Alevi initiative.
The Religious Affairs Directorate neither allocates funds for Alevi activities nor pays the salaries of Alevi religious leaders. In effect, the directorate’s budget is reserved for the Sunni community.
Alevis practice a form of Islam that distinguishes their worship from that of the Sunni Muslim majority. While there are no official figures on Turkey’s Alevi population, estimates vary from 6 million to 15 million in the country, which has a population of more than 70 million. The Cem Foundation’s head, Professor İzzettin Doğan, puts the figure as high as 30 million.
For the most burning problems of the Alevis, Professor Doğan blamed the Religious Affairs Directorate, or Diyanet. “The Religious Affairs Directorate is the biggest obstacle to freedom and the development of Turkish democracy,” he said at the BGM. “No government is able to take a step forward on the issue because of Diyanet.”
He was referring to Religious Affairs Directorate’s reported opposition to official recognition of cemevis on grounds that the only house of worship in Islam is the mosque. Many Alevi associations stated prior to the Sept. 12 referendum that they would not support the reform package since it did not include changes to satisfy their expectations: an end to mandatory religious courses and official recognition of cemevis.
Public opinion leaders seen as important by members of the Alevi community participated in yesterday’s meeting.
Last year, the government launched the Alevi initiative to address the problems of the Alevis and, for this reason, organized several workshops in which participants met and discussed the issues, although some Alevi organizations were critical of the method and the participants in the workshops. The latest meeting of the Alevi workshops, held at the end of January, ended with a road map that suggests solutions to the problems of the Alevi community, including new regulations about religious education and recognition of cemevis.
State Minister Çelik also added that Madımak, which is a hotel in Central Anatolia where 37 people were burnt to death, will be expropriated on Nov. 23.
The place has a special significance for Alevis, who have been subject to killings throughout history. During the Alevi Pir Sultan Abdal Cultural and Literary Festival on July 2, 1993, many participants staying at the Madımak Hotel in downtown Sivas found themselves besieged by an angry mob and the hotel torched. When the fire was finally extinguished, 37 people were found dead, including two of the attackers and two hotel workers. Among those who escaped the blaze was Aziz Nesin, thought to be the mob’s main target, who published Salman Rushdie’s “The Satanic Verses” in Turkey.
State Minister Çelik said at the meeting that democratic development in the country has been frequently interrupted by military interventions and the problems of society could not even be discussed.
“So the problems have deepened. I wish we were able to discuss those problems 20-30 years ago. Then nobody would have the courage to use our differences against us and we would not experience the pains of Maraş, Çorum, Sivas and May 1, 1977. But now we have a different Turkey that should not be afraid of looking in the mirror,” Çelik said.
Even though some of Çelik’s statements were interrupted by the audience, who expected that more concrete solutions would be announced, the meeting of the world’s Alevi religious leaders, marked by the 87th celebration of the republic on Oct. 29, was a scene of peace and cooperation.
Alevi religious leaders who participated in the meeting included Naki Horasan from the Kosovo Alevi Association; Bab Mondi from the Macedonia Harabati Baba Council; Selahattin Özgündüz from the Caferi Leadership; Professor Oktay Efendiyev from Baku University, Azerbaijan; Seyit Niyazi Türkmani from Syria Halep Ateşoğulları Society; Ali Dedeoğlu from the Switzerland Alevi Society; Binnur Aslan from the London Alevi Association; and Dr. Muhammed Ali Sultani from the Iran-Yaristan Historical Research Center.
There were also representatives of political party leaders who took to the stage to address the crowd, such as Bayram Meral, who spoke on behalf of the main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP), and Ufuk Söylemez, from the Democrat Party (DP). There were also Alevi deputies of Turkish origin from the European Parliament and former Justice Minister Seyfi Oktay, who is the subject of an investigation concerning interference in the Supreme Board of Judges and Prosecutors (HSYK) elections.