Turkish Muslim sect protests discrimination

Said they wanted Turkey to remain 'secular'


Thousands of people from a liberal Muslim sect, the Alevis, took to the streets here on Sunday, denouncing the Islamist-rooted government and calling for equal religious rights.

About 50,000 people, arriving from all parts of the country, gathered in downtown Ankara, chanting slogans against the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) and dancing traditional Alevi dances.

Protestors carried Turkish flags and portraits of Turkey's secularist founder Ataturk and placards with slogans such as: "End discrimination" and "Turkey is secular, it will remain secular."

"The AK Party ignores the rights of 20 million Alevis in this country. This shows that they are not honest with their talk of religious freedoms," said Suleyman Erseven, a 48-year old demonstrator.

The main Alevi demands include an end to Sunni dominance in the religious affairs directorate, the government agency regulating Muslim affairs; the abolition of compulsory religion classes in schools; and the recognition of Alevi temples as places of worship.

Turkey's sizeable Alevi sect is a distant relative of Shiite Islam, known for its traditionally leftist and secularist leanings. It has long been suppressed by the Sunni majority.

The Alevi faith, closely related to Sufism and Anatolian folk culture, is the specifically Turkish version of Alawism, prominent also in Syria.

They say that despite its advocacy of broader religious freedoms, the AKP government has done little on promises for reconciliation with the Alevis, who account for 15 to 20 million of Turkey's 70-million population.

Many Alevis tend to support secularist parties because they fear Islamists will put further restrictions on their faith. They say the AK Party strives to expand freedoms for Sunni Muslims, while ignoring the demands of Alevis.

Some protesters called for abolishing the Religious Affairs Directorate, which they say is defending Sunni Islam. The directorate tightly regulates Turkey's thousands of mosques, appoints imams, pays their salaries and approve sermons for Friday prayers.

Alevi representatives also said the government should stop building mosques in Alevi villages. Most Alevis do not attend mosques but prefer gathering in houses of prayer, called Cemevi, where women and men pray together.

The European Union, which Turkey is seeking to join, has also urged Ankara to expand Alevi rights.