Mor Gabriel, Alevism and the ECHR

‘We will fight this decision all the way to the European Court for Human Rights’. It’s a sentence you hear often when injustice is done once again in a Turkish court, or when you talk to people who feel they have been treated unjustly by the state. Way more often than not, the ECHR rules in favour of the plaintiff and the Turkish state is convicted. The unfortunate thing is: both the Turkish government and Turkish judges often just don’t care about a ruling of the ECHR.

The latest case attracting a lot of attention, and which will be taken to the ECHR, is the case of Mor Gabriel, a Syrian Orthodox monastery in Midyat in Southeast Turkey. It was established in the year 397 and is the oldest surviving Syrian Orthodox monastery in the world. It has been in legal battles since 2008, when locals claimed the monastery was using lands that they needed for raising cattle. A lower Turkish court ruled in favour of the monastery, but the state took over the prosecutions and finally won: the Supreme Court of Appeals ruled the lands of Mor Gabriel belong to the state. That is against all logic, since the monastery can prove they have been paying taxes for many decades and they have all their paperwork in order.

An exception rather than a rule

The ECHR will probably take some years to rule that Turkey is wrong and should grant Mor Gabriel the property rights they have. That will be a well deserved victory for the monastery, but I doubt if it will change anything in the way Turkey handles religious minorities. In essence, that means that if you are not a Sunni Muslim, you have no rights in Turkey.

International law has precedence over national law, but the carrying out of rulings of the ECHR can’t be ensured. Parties to the treaty, of which Turkey is one, should just have the decency to implement the rulings under their national laws. Turkey doesn’t have that decency – not that other European countries always have, by the way, as you can read here. But Turkey makes carrying out ECHR rulings an exception rather than a rule.

The whole humilitation again

There is a very recent example of that, concerning another group in Turkish society that is not Sunni Muslim: the Alevi’s. A court ruled that two Alevi children must attend the obligatory religious classes in secondary school, even though the ECHR already ruled years ago that Alevi children cannot be forced to. The religious classes teach the Turkish state version of Sunni Islam, which differs from Alevi beliefs. The two children concerned were, after a legal battle, exempted from religious classes in primary school, but now have to go through the whole humiliation again. The local court just rules that the religious classes are ‘constitutional’ and that’s it.

How the state considers religions other than Sunni Islam was also confirmed by Deputy PM Bekir Bozdag, who said Alevism is not a separate religion, that the Alevi are Muslims and that all Muslims can go to the mosque for prayers. That’s why the AKP has been building mosques in villages where mostly Alevi live – nobody attends those mosques, because the Alevi use cemevi as houses of worship. Not permissible, ruled a Turkish court earlier this week. You can go to a cemevi, but you are not allowed to call the place a ‘house of worship’, only a ‘cultural centre’. Compare that also to how the Mevlevi Order has been reduced to being a cultural activity instead of the spiritual belief it really is.

Current and ancient

On the first of August, the constitutional commission of parliament will convene again. I’m not very optimistic about any progress there. The mindset that everybody in Turkey is not only a Turk but also a Muslim, and more precisely a Sunni Muslim as the rules of the Turkish secular state is rooted too deeply for all members of the commission to accept that all religious groups in Turkey need the freedom to express their faith however they wish, treated with respect from the state for not only their current houses of worship, but also their ancient ones.

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