RE case seen as key human rights test

11th August 2000 at 01:00

LEADERS of a minority Muslimsect are to take the Turkish government to the European Court of Human Rights over discrimination in religious teaching in schools.

The case will be a test of Turkey's willingness to adopt minimum European Union standards on rights for minorities as it seeeks to join the EU.

The Alevi religion with 12 million adherents in Turkey, is an offshoot of Shia Islam. Most Turks are Sunni Muslims.

Alevis are radically different from Sunnis in that they do not take part in the Ramadan fast or follow the orthodox cycle of daily prayers. They also congregate in their own houses rather than mosques and Alevi women do not wear the headscarf.

But at school all Turkish pupils can only study the Sunni religion.

"In school we get one hour of compulsory religious instruction every week," said Gul Cagoglu, who graduated from an Istanbul secondary this summer. "You have to learn prayers in Arabic - which we don't understand - and there's no teaching about different religions. They also use a Sunni textbook."

Over the many centuries during which the Alevis have lived in Turkey, they have suffered from the widespread prejudice of the Sunnis.

More recently, they been one of Turkey's more outspoken minorities, particularly since 37 Alevi intellectuals and sympathisers perished in a fire started by Sunni religious extremists in 1993. An armed attack on an Alevi coffee house in an Istanbul suburb in 1995 was followed by two days of riots.

Since Turkey has been accepted as a candidate for EU membership, Alevis have been lobbying for the same rights as other religious minorities in Europe.

Ali Balkiz, chairman of the Alevi Pir Sultan Abdal Association, has said his association decided to take the community's grievances to the European court, as they had exhausted their legal options inside Turkey.

The association wants an end to religious lessons in schools and the abolition of the Religious Affairs Directorate, a state body that administers the country's mosques and relgious appointments, and writes the sermons for Friday prayers.

However the Alevi campaign has sparked a wider debate over whether Turkey needs to become a more tolerant, liberal society. As a columnist for the Turkish daily Hurriyet, put it: "What kind of country do we Turks want?"

To meet EU conditions for membership, Turkey has to fulfil the "Copenhagen Criteria", which include minimum standards for human rights and democratic practices. Karen Fogg, the EU Commission's representative in Turkey, recently called for a "widening" of Turkish democracy and the development of more "inclusive" practices.

This runs against the grain for many, particularly if it means giving more rights to the minority Kurds. A recent call by the Turkish Foreign Ministry to allow Kurdish language, broadcasting and education was slapped down by the military, who still hold considerable power. The generals wrote the current constitution after the 1980 military coup, and this guarantees them a major role in the country's politics.

And it is not just the military who oppose more rights for minorities. Devlet Bahceli, leader of the right-wing Nationalist Action Party, the second largest in the coalition government, described the idea of minority rights and education in languages other than Turkish as "unacceptable".

But there is concern that such attitudes will make EU membership impossible. Sukru Elekdag, Turkey's former ambassador to the US and a columnist for the daily Milliyet, recently warned: "If the current state of things continues it will be a pipe-dream for Turkey to start accession talks with the EU in 2004."

Ozlem Karaoglu, 16, an Alevi schoolgirl from Istanbul, said: "They say Turkey is a mosaic - of Alevis, Kurds, Turks, Greeks, Christians, Jews and Muslims. But many of the minorities just want to leave. Turkey is a mosaic that's losing its colours."

A Muslim sect has sparked a national debate over discrimination against

minorities by taking its grievances to the European Court of Human Rights.

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