In a written response to Republican People’s Party (CHP) Tunceli deputy Hüseyin Aygün on Monday, Turkish Parliament Speaker Cemil Çiçek said Aygün’s request that a space be provided in the parliamentary building for a cemevi had been denied. Basing his rejection on the Directorate of Religious Affairs’ definition of Alevism, he also added that Alevism is a cultural treasure that emerged during the course of Islamic history but that Islam’s places of worship are mosques.
Hıdır Bayır, the head of the Cem Foundation, voiced his dissatisfaction with the recent controversy in a phone interview with Sunday’s Zaman. What he mainly focused on while talking on the status of cemevis in Turkey was not the rejection of Aygün’s proposal, but rather the serious lack of cemevis and their ambivalent legal status in Turkey.
Bayır complained that even in the Turkish capital of Ankara, there are not enough cemevis to hold funeral ceremonies, so sparing a place for a cemevi in the parliamentary building is not the real matter at hand. He also noted that there are some 2,000 cemevis across Turkey, which he says fall short of the Alevi community’s needs.
“Cemevis are places of worship for Alevi people just as synagogues are the places where Jewish people pray. We read interpretations of the Quran’s verses by Turkish folk poets such as Aşık Veysel during the prayers we conduct in cemevis, accompanied by the music of the reed. We want to live in an atmosphere where there is freedom of belief and equality in the eyes of the state, as is stipulated in the constitution,” continued Bayır.
Alevi Foundations Federation (AVF) Chairman Doğan Bermek also underlined that the existence of a cemevi in the parliamentary building does not matter if the Alevi community’s problems related to misunderstandings about the true nature of Alevism and an inadequate number of cemevis are not solved. In response to what Çiçek said, Bermek pointed out that mosques are not the only spaces where Muslim people can pray since there are no stipulations for Muslims to pray in a particular place according to the Islamic faith.
“Mosques and cemevis should not be pitted against each other, which upsets us the most since we have no trouble with the presence of mosques. Alevis and Sunnis believe in the same religious book and the prophet and, thus, there is no sense in trying to define cemevis and mosques as totally different places from each other,” said Bermek. He also said Islam must be understood correctly before one can talk about Alevism and its emergence with true insight.
From amongst the Alevi community there were also harsher reactions to Çiçek’s move. Pir Sultan Abdal Cultural Association Organization Chairman Kemal Bülbül told Sunday’s Zaman that Çiçek’s refusal to have a cemevi in Parliament is yet another example of forcing Alevis to pray in mosques. “As it was during the Seljuk and Ottoman periods, the Alevi people are being forced to conduct their prayers in mosques, which means there is a denial of Alevism being a separate faith”, Bülbül said.
The non-recognition of cemevis as places of worship also derives support from an opinion held by the Directorate of Religious Affairs that is not legally binding according to Turkish law. A memo sent by the Directorate of Religious Affairs to the Interior Ministry on Dec. 17, 2004 stated that “it is not possible to consider cemevis and other [such] premises places of worship because Alevism, which is a sub-group of Islam, cannot have a place of worship other than mosques or mescit, which are the common places of worship within Islam.”