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.

Cemevi, and the freedom of religion

Good news this weekend from south-eastern Diyarbakir. The municipality joined with an Alevi organisation in a ceremony for the opening of a cemevi, a prayer house for Alevis (a liberal path in Islam). A brand new, multipurpose building where the (small) Alevi community of Diyarbakir can come together to celebrate their religion. Still, I have some reservations too. Because in Turkey, religions other than the state version of Sunni Islam depend on the goodwill of local authorities to practice their religion freely.

Turkey is a secular country, but not in the sense that religion and the state are strictly separated. On the contrary: religion and the state are very closely intertwined. Religious life is controlled by Diyanet, the state directorate for religious affairs. Their version of Sunni Islam is taught in schools (mandatory) and in all mosques, all imams are civil servants educated in state schools and universities, and the highest religious authority is also a public servant. Diyanet was founded right after the foundation of the Republic, to protect the ‘secular’ state against the power of religion.

Treaty of Lausanne

Diyanet has in this way always contributed to protecting the unity of the Turkish nation state. Everybody was proclaimed to be a Turk (even if you were Arab, Greek, Kurd, Armenian, Laz, or whichever other ethnicity), and everybody was a Muslim following the state religion. The only exception was made for ‘non Muslim minorities’, as mentioned in the Treaty of Lausanne in 1923: Greeks, Armenians and Jews were entitled to practice their religion, have their own schools and other facilities. Muslim minorities who were not Turks and/or not Sunni Muslims, like Kurds and Alevis, were not recognised as minorities. In practice this meant they also didn’t get any rights to their own religious or ethnic identity.

Which doesn’t mean by the way that there are no cemevi’s in Turkey. There are, but they are cultural centres, not houses of worship. Comparable to the derwish lodges, a religious sect that was also reduced to something cultural in stead of religion, as you can read in this former blogpost. *)


It is not surprising that it is in Diyarbakir that a cemevi is now being opened. The municipality, ruled by pro-Kurdish party BDP, knows what it’s like when your identity is being denied. Osman Baydemir, the mayor of Diyarbakir, is pretty determined to make his city a place where everybody can be himself – he referred to that also in his opening speech at a conference about the history of the Diyarbakir region which I recently visited. He had already mentioned the opening of the cemevi at the conference, and he also expressed his wish to make the city more multi-religious, as it used to be in pre-Republic times, when for example large groups of Christian Armenians were living there.

In most regions of Turkey, Alevis don’t get their right to open a cemevi. On the contrary even: the AKP government is known for building mosques in predominantly Alevi regions, like the province of Dersim/Tunceli. That’s not the only problem Alevis have in Turkey: their children still have to follow the mandatory religious classes even though they teach nothing about their religion, and despite a ruling of the European Court of Human Rights – read more about that here.


I admire the efforts of Baydemir very much. He shows that a suppressed people like the Kurds who get some power, are able to look beyond the interests of their own group, and are eager to give others the rights they are also denied. But he too has to act within the limits of the state, like with the cemevi: it’s officially a cultural centre, not a house of worship. If – which is pretty theoretical at the moment, but never mind about that now – Armenians decide to settle in the region again, would it be possible to re-open one of their churches for religious ceremonies? In theory, maybe, but in practice? In Diyarbakir they would have the support of the municipality, but how about other regions of the country? Imagine Greeks re-settling in the north of Turkey, known for being pretty nationalist. Would they get support from nationalist mayors to experience their religion the way they want, and to re-open their confiscated and abandoned houses of worship?

The opening of the cemevi in Diyarbakir shows the deeply rooted problem that Turkey has with religious freedom. No kind-hearted mayor, no municipal goodwill should be needed to settle somewhere as a religious group. What is needed is a solid law that guarantees the freedom of religion. So that all groups, whether they are Alevi, Greek, Armenian, (or Dutch Christian, for that matter) or whichever other religious identity, can just open a house of prayer if they feel a need for it.

*) This small paragraph was added after the comment underneath of Theoldtturk, since I don’t want people to think that the cemevi in Diyarbakir is the first in Turkey and you could indeed get that impression. 

Apology by decree

What’s it worth, this apology that Prime Minister Erdogan made yesterday for the Dersim massacres? He said it, he actually said that he apologizes on the state’s behalf for what happened in 1937 and 1938. A novelty in Turkish politics. But at the same time it is not a novelty at all. It is not the first time people’s pains are being used for playing political games. And it’s not the first time Erdogan just states or decides something, without first taking his proposal to parliament or conduct a nation wide debate about it. He rules by decree, and this is an example of it.

A political game? Of course it is. Erdogan just wanted to put opposition leader Kilicdaroglu on the spot. Kilicdaroglu has his roots in Dersim, family members of his were murdered, and the whole Dersim debate going on these days was started by a CHP MP from Dersim who stated that the massacres were a planned attack, and that Atatürk, President at the time, ordered it. Heavy discussions in the CHP: many MP’s attacked their Dersim colleague for his words: the CHP is Atatürks party who was ruling the country as the only permitted party, and criticizing what happened in Dersim touches the roots of their political history.
The discussions and allegations between Kilicdaroglu and Erdogan were going on for some days already, and Erdogan also heavily attacked Kilicdaroglu in his speech in which he apologized. What a shameful behaviour, to make politics over the pain of thousands of people. How must it feel for people from Dersim to be used like this for the Prime Ministers gain?

Legitimate action

Besides all this, ruling by decree is not worthy of a democracy. Not when it comes to any policy field, but especially not when it comes to deeply black pages of Turkey’s history like the Dersim massacres. For a wholehearted apology, first a careful, sincere debate is needed about what exactly happened, why it happened and why an apology would be in order.
This apology of Erdogan came totally out of the blue. Until the day before yesterday, the state version of what happened in Dersim was that there was an uprising going on in the province, that threatened the still young republic, and this uprising was legitimately cracked down. If this was the case, why would an apology be needed? It must be weird also for Turks, who have learned the state history in schools. Why is our Prime Minister apologizing for a legitimate action?

Apologizing out of the blue is not a way to confront the past. Confronting the past is throwing all historical taboos overboard and discuss the matter from every angle. With everybody whom it concerns. Open archives, put responsibility where it belongs, listen to people’s stories, acknowledge pain. Then an apology can follow – by the President, since he represents the state, and not by the Prime Minister, who represents the government.


The danger of this apology is not only that it will not bring any relief to the survivors of Dersim and the families of the ones who didn’t survive, but also that it blocks the road to real reconciliation. The apology is already done, so why now start debating the whole issue? Why acknowledge pains, why researching in detail what happened? I fear the day that the survivors and the families of the deceased are being silenced because Erdogan apologized already and they are being asked what more they could possibly want.

So no, I won’t praise Erdogan in any way for his apology. It’s sad to say, but it came too early.

Religious class

Another legal victory for parents who don’t want their kid to attend compulsory religious classes: an Istanbul court ruled that a child of atheist parents can skip the class. It’s not the first time. In 2007 the European Court for Human Rights ruled that a child with Alevi parents, (Alevism is an Islamic sect), cannot be obliged to follow the religious classes. Good news, but to be honest, I sometimes feel sad for the kids of these brave parents.

The religious classes, called ‘religious culture and ethics’, were introduced at the beginning of the nineteen eighties, after the military coup. They teach children only the theory and rituals of Sunni Islam, or more precisely the state version of Sunni Islam, as propagated by the state directorate for religious affairs, Diyanet. For children of Alevi or atheist parents, or parents of any background other than state Sunni Islam, the information taught in the classes is not relevant.

A court can rule that some children can’t be forced to follow these classes, but at the same time these classes have the effect of making kids think that everybody in Turkey has the same religious belief. So if one kid in the class is the exception and can skip the class by court order, he is placed out of his peer group. Not always of course, but I recently spoke to the lawyer who filed the case for the Alevi family at the European Court in 2007, and he said Alevi kids are often ridiculed at school by their classmates, and even by their teachers. Many Alevi kids hide their religion to avoid being the exception, or the butt of ridicule in class.

So maybe the solution is not that children of beliefs other than Sunni State Islam get permission to not attend these religious classes. I think the solution would be to abolish the classes all together, and replace them with classes on comparative religion. That way, understanding and respect can be built for every belief (or non-belief) existing. That would save court cases, but especially a whole lot of unhappy kids.