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Turkey - Religion

The country has an area of 301,383 square miles and a population of 70.5 million. According to the Government, 99 percent of the population is Muslim, the majority of which is Hanafi Sunni. According to the human rights nongovernmental organization Mazlum-Der and representatives of various religious minority communities, the actual percentage of Muslims is slightly lower. The level of religious observance varies throughout the country, in part due to a strong adherence to secularism.

Islam in Turkey is caught in a vise of (1) 100 years of "secular" pressure to hide itself from public view, (2) pressure and competition from brotherhoods and lodges to follow their narrow, occult "true way", and (3) the faction - and positivism - ridden aridity of the Religious Affairs Directorate (Diyanet). As a result, Islam as it is lived in Turkey is stultified, riddled with hypocrisy, ignorant and intolerant of other religions' presence in Turkey, and unable to eject those who would politicize it in a radical, anti-Western way. Imams are for the most part poorly educated and all too ready to insinuate anti-Western, anti-Christian or anti-Jewish sentiments into their sermons. Exceptionally few Muslims in Turkey have the courage to challenge conventional Sunni thinking about jihad or, e.g., verses in the Repentance shura of the Koran which have for so long been used to justify violence against "infidels".

A uniquely "Turkish" Sufi tradition emphasizes purity of the heart and a realization of one's whole self in God. This is in sharp contrast to the somewhat stereotypical ideas of strict "Arab (read: Saudi Salafist) Islam". This interpretive approach to the Koran - freed from strict adherence to the Arabic text - provided space for individual expressions of piety, and for reconciliation with Christians, Jews and even non-believers. But instead of building on the reforming and modernizing traditions of the Ottoman period, which could serve to guide Turkey in its current situation, the Republic's early leaders had chosen to discard everything, including the relatively moderate brand of Islam practiced during that period. Their authoritarian approach to the "new Turkey" had stifled existing and "natural" reforming impulses.

In addition to the country's Sunni Muslim majority, there are an estimated 12 million Alevis, a heterodox Muslim sect. Turkish Alevi rituals include men and women worshipping together through speeches, poetry, and dance. Some Turkish Alevis maintain they are not Muslims.

Alevis and Alawis are two distinct groups of people that have different interpretations of Islam. Both groups are of Shia origin and their names mean "devoted to Ali," who was the son-in-law and cousin of the Prophet Muhammad. As many as 20 million Alevis live in Turkey, about half-million of whom are Arabic-speaking and live along the border with Syria. Around two million Alawis [Alawites] live in Syria. Whenever Turkish Prime Minister Erdogan talked about Syria, he referred to Assad as an Alevi, thus stoking the fires of sectarian tensions in Turkey. Tthe Alevis that live along the Syrian border are near the Alawis in Syria and have ties with them. Alevism, as a particular belief system, is not recognized by the Turkish government. Neither Islamists nor the Turkish government make a clear distinction between Alevis and Alawis.

Neither Alevis nor Alawis pray in mosques, neither do they support clerics as mainstream Shias do. Instead of mosques, Alevis pray in a cemevi or "meeting-house," and Alawis do not have places of worship except for shrines to their leaders or sheikhs. Despite their common background, Alevis and Alawis have religious and cultural differences.

Alevis draw from Shi'a, Sufi and Anatolian folk traditions. Alevis practice Islamic mysticism as taught by wandering dervishes; the human being is the "living quran" and a sacred being; man and women are equally initiated. Main practices are Cem ("come together") including semah (ritual dance), singing of hymns, solving of problems inside the community; commemoration of the death of Huseyn in Karbala. 12-Imam -Fasting during the Islamic month Muharram.

Alevis have been "persecuted" for centuries because of their particular understanding of Islam. Officially, there is no discrimination against Alevis, but in practice, it still occurs. A cemevi is not officially recognized by the government as a place of worship but is considered a "cultural center". Alevis have been barred from holding commemorative ceremonies, and their property has been marked. The houses and Alevi cemevis were not only marked with an "x" but also with such slogans as "'dirty Alevis, we will burn all of you'" or "Death to Alevis". Since Alevis do not practice the ritual of ablution or al-wudu, they are regarded by the Sunnis as neither "pure" nor "clean" and their food is viewed as contaminated.

Kurdish Alevis (whose tenets of belief are further removed from Islamic orthodoxy than those of Turkish Alevis and Alawis) are most distrusted and discriminated against. The Alawis are more invisible than the Turkish or Kurdish Alevis and are rarely mentioned explicitly.

There are several other religious groups, mostly concentrated in Istanbul and other large cities. While exact membership figures are not available, these include an estimated 50,000 Armenian Orthodox Christians, 25,000 Jews, and from 3,000 to 5,000 Greek Orthodox adherents. These three groups are recognized by the Government as having special legal minority status under the 1923 Lausanne Treaty. There also are approximately 10,000 Baha'is, as well as an estimated 15,000 Syrian Orthodox (Syriac) Christians, 3,000 Protestants, and small, undetermined numbers of Bulgarian, Chaldean, Nestorian, Georgian, and Maronite Christians. The number of Syriac Christians in the southeast once was high; however, many Syriacs have migrated to Istanbul, Europe, or North America.

The Constitution provides for freedom of religion, and the Government generally respects this right in practice; however, the Government imposes some restrictions on religious groups and on religious expression in government offices and state-run institutions, including universities. Some Muslims, Christians, and Baha'is faced some restrictions and occasional harassment, including detentions for alleged proselytizing or unauthorized meetings. The Government continued to oppose "Islamic fundamentalism." An intense debate continues over a broad government ban on wearing Muslim religious dress in state facilities, including universities, schools, and workplaces.

The Constitution provides for freedom of religion, and the Government generally respects this right in practice; however, the Government imposes some restrictions on non-Muslim religious groups and on Muslim religious expression in government offices and state-run institutions, including universities, usually for the stated reason of combating religious fundamentalism. The Constitution establishes the country as a secular state and provides for freedom of belief, freedom of worship, and the private dissemination of religious ideas. However, these rights are restricted particularly by other constitutional provisions regarding the integrity and existence of the secular State. The Constitution prohibits discrimination on religious grounds.

The authorities monitor the activities of Eastern Orthodox churches but do not interfere with their activities. While the Government does not recognize the ecumenical nature of the Greek Orthodox patriarch, it acknowledges him as head of the Turkish Greek Orthodox community and does not interfere with his travels or other ecumenical activities. The Ecumenical Patriarch in Istanbul continues to seek to reopen the Halki seminary on the island of Heybeli in the Sea of Marmara. The seminary had been closed since 1971, when the State nationalized all private institutions of higher learning. Under existing restrictions, including a citizenship requirement, religious communities largely remain unable to train new clergy in the country for eventual leadership. Coreligionists from outside the country have been permitted to assume leadership positions.

The Government oversees Muslim religious facilities and education through its Directorate of Religious Affairs (Diyanet). It regulates the operation of the country's 75,000 mosques, and employs local and provincial imams, who are civil servants. Some groups claim that the Diyanet reflects mainstream Sunni Islamic beliefs to the exclusion of other beliefs; however, the Government asserts that the Diyanet treats equally all those who request services.

A separate government agency, the Office of Foundations (Vakiflar Genel Mudurlugu), regulates some activities of non-Muslim religious groups and their affiliated churches, monasteries, religious schools, and related property. There are 160 "minority foundations" recognized by the Vakiflar, including Greek Orthodox (approximately 70 sites), Armenian Orthodox (approximately 50), and Jewish (20), as well as Syrian Christian, Chaldean, Bulgarian Orthodox, Georgian, and Maroni foundations. The Vakiflar also regulates Muslim charitable religious foundations, including schools and hospitals.

State-sponsored Islamic religious and moral instruction in public 8-year primary schools is compulsory. Upon written verification of their non-Muslim background, minorities "recognized" by the Government under the 1923 Lausanne Treaty (Greek Orthodox, Armenian Orthodox, and Jewish) are exempted by law from Muslim religious instruction. These students may attend courses with parental consent. Other non-Muslim minorities, such as Catholics, Protestants, and Syriac Christians, are not exempted legally; however, in practice may obtain exemptions.

The Government, in particular the military, judiciary, and other members of the secular elite, continued to wage campaigns against proponents of Islamic fundamentalism. Fundamentalism, especially the advocacy of Shari'a law, is viewed by these groups as a threat to the democratic secular republic. The National Security Council (NSC)--a powerful military/civilian body established by the 1982 Constitution to advise senior leadership on national security matters--categorizes religious fundamentalism as a threat to public safety. Despite the NSC's activism on this issue, legislative measures have been taken in only 5 of an 18-point "anti-fundamentalist" plan introduced in 1997.

Some members of the military, judiciary, and other branches of the bureaucracy continued to wage campaigns against what they label as Islamic fundamentalism. These groups view religious fundamentalism as a threat to the secular state. The National Security Council and Turkish General Staff categorize religious fundamentalism as a threat to public safety. According to Turkish human rights organization Mazlum-Der and other groups, a few government ministries dismissed or barred from promotion civil servants suspected of antistate or Islamist activities. Reports by Mazlum-Der, the media, and others indicated that the military periodically dismissed religiously observant Muslims from military service. Such dismissals were based on behavior that military officials believed identified these individuals as Islamic fundamentalists, which officials believed could indicate disloyalty to the secular state. There also were reports of non-Muslim religious leaders being identified and portrayed as threats to national security during military training.

According to Mazlum-Der, the military charged soldiers with lack of discipline for activities that included performing Islamic prayers or being married to women who wore headscarves. According to the military, officers and noncommissioned officers were dismissed periodically for ignoring repeated warnings from superior officers and for maintaining ties to what the military considered Islamic fundamentalist organizations. In August 2008 the Government reported no military dismissals, while in its December 2008 session it issued 24 dismissals, five of which pertained to alleged Islamic fundamentalism.

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Page last modified: 20-07-2016 13:18:15 ZULU