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  • December 2012: publication of the first book in Syriac by the Ministry of Culture and Tourism

The first book in Syriac published in December 2012 by the Ministry of Culture and Tourism of the Republic of Turkey contains a major amount of Syriac literature and most of the poems by Mor Afram, the famous Syriac poet. The 400-page book, entitled “The chalumeau of the Holy Spirit”, was translated by Gabriel Akyüz, Priest at the Syriac Church of Mardin.

  • October 2012: The Fazil Say case

In October 2012, the famous Turkish pianist Fazil Say was charged with "insulting religion" for having tweeted a message citing a quatrain by the famous Persian poet Omar Khayyam mocking carnal pleasures promised in the afterlife. "The state, which allows itself to judge a pianist for a simple tweet, is headed by a Prime Minister who was himself condemned in his time for reading a poem", said the Turkish pianist. In 1997, Erdogan had indeed been sentenced for publicly reading a poem considered to be Islamic (see on line).

  • October 2012: The theological school on the island of Heybeli

The theological school of Heybeli Island (Halki) was founded in 1844 and has been closed since the 1970s. The school library contains a treasure of 80,000 philosophical, literary and religious works in ancient Greek or Latin. There was some discussion about reopening the Halki theological school (Orthodox) by attaching it to a new department - “Culture of the world’s religions” - linked to the Faculty of Theology at the University of Istanbul. But because the department’s Director, Zekeriya Beyaz, is a Muslim theologian, the Ecumenical Patriarchate in Istanbul did not favour the idea and this department has also been closed since October 2012.

  • September 2012: Attack in Sürgü

It all took place in Sürgü, a village in Malatya, Turkey, during Ramadan. Alevis do not celebrate Ramadan, so when the 4am drum announced it was time for sahur, they did not wake up, as their Sunni neighbours did, to begin fasting. A dispute then ensued between an Alevi family and the person responsible for waking up the neighbourhood.
The day following the dispute, some 50 villagers turned up and threw stones at the windows of the house, singing the Turkish national anthem. Shots were fired, according to the family. The protest lasted two hours, during which all the other Alevi families were waiting for the police to intervene. The next day, the AKP mayor of Dogansehir, the sub-prefect and several ministers from the AKP and CHP, including Huseyin Aygün, CHP’s minister from Tunceli, travelled to the area to try to calm spirits.

  • September 2012: The problem of cemevis

A few weeks after the events in Malatya, one of the CHP ministers, Mr. Hüseyin Aygün, asked parliament to open a cemevi (place of prayer for Alevis) wherever there is a mosque. The President of the Assembly, Mr. Cemil Çiçek, replied that Alevism was a branch of Islam and that the mosque was also the place of worship for Alevis.

  • August 2012: The church of Surp Kevork

The Armenian church of Surp Kevork, located in Mardin in Turkey, has long been used by the Ministry of Agriculture as a warehouse for medicines. In 2004, the church guardian was found guilty of destroying the building, after having dug down about seven metres into the earth in search of treasure there. Subsequently, the church was put under state protection.
Since 2007, the Armenian population has been awaiting the restoration of the church, but no progress has been made. The church has been in ruins for so long that only four walls and one foundation survive. As a result of its lack of interest in arranging restoration work, the Department of Agriculture re-assigned the church to the Catholic Armenian Foundation of Mardin in August 2012. The Armenian population hopes that this transfer will enable some progress to be made towards restoring the church.

  • June 2012: modification to the “Religious Culture and Moral Education course”

It is frequently stated that 99% of Turks are Muslims, without specifying which interpretation of Islam is concerned. Yet, a significant part of these are Alevis who in the main do not want to be assimilated with Sunnis.

Discrimination towards Alevis has long remained absent from public debate. For several years now, discussions have been taking place between Alevi representatives and the government to examine the Alevis’ requests. There are many of them, but they mainly concern having the same rights as Sunnis in two respects: religious studies in state schools and the subsidies granted by the Diyanet (the Turkish department for religious affairs). The Diyanet is responsible for remunerating thousands of imams (approximately 59,617 in Turkey and 1,525 abroad, in addition to 22,000 officials occupying positions other than as imams within the Diyanet in 2010). However, the Diyanet does not subsidise Alevi religious authorities, the “dedes”.

Opinions are very much divided among Alevis as to how to remedy these inequalities. Some advocate pure and simply abolition of the Diyanet and compulsory religious studies - considered to be pro-Sunni. Mainly these are secular groups who are reticent about the Turkish State intervening in the religious sphere. Others have expressed the desire to receive from the Diyanet the same services as Sunnis. The state would thus subsidise remuneration of the “dedes” and construction of places of worship (although the Diyanet almost never subsidises mosques, whose construction is funded through donations from believers).

As regards the “religious culture and moral education course” and its compulsory nature (stipulated by Article 24 of the Constitution introduced by the military regime in 1982), several solutions have been put forward: removal of the mandatory nature of this course, the total removal of the course from state school curricula or even adapting the curriculum to make it, as its name suggests, a “religious culture and moral education course”, i.e. neutral and not pro-Sunni.

After long debates about the issue of the “religious culture and moral education course” and the ECHR’s decision of 9 October 2007 (Hasan and Eylem Zengin c. Turkey), the current government opted for the third solution and, in the new 2012-13 curriculum, granted a place to Alevism that it considers proportional to the needs of Alevi populations. Up to now, Alevism was fleetingly mentioned among “the esoteric interpretations of Islam”. In the new curriculum, Alevism is now introduced in many chapters presenting its beliefs, faith, its ethics and history.

There are then numerous additions to the curriculum. For example, the explanation of fasting in the month of muharram; the importance of Ali (son-in-law and cousin of the Prophet) and Ahlu al-Bayt (the family of the Prophet); the presentation of the key figures of Alevism (Ahmed Yesevi, Haci bektas Veli and Ali al-Riza). Nevruz (the traditional festival celebrated by Iranian, Kurdish and Turkish peoples) will be dealt with in the unit devoted to important Islamic days with the aim of “sharing our woes and our happiness”. Alevism is to be mentioned in the course on “interpretations of Islam”, as well as in that on “the Islamisation of Turks”. Alevi practices such as “cem” and “semah” (cem is a religious ritual consisting of twelve services, one of which is semah, which designates a sacred dance composed of bodily movements of a mystical nature) or Alevi calligraphy or principles (“musahip” (brother of the afterlife) and “Dört Kapı Kırk Makam”, four doors, forty steps, which detail the stages of progress in the faith) will be also explained.

Arif Gümus

  • February 2012: Debate on education reform

The Ministry of National Education has passed a reform extending the duration of compulsory education from 8 to 12 years. Opponents have criticized the segmentation of these twelve years into three cycles (naming this provision ’4+4+4’).

Prior to this reform, pupils in primary and secondary education in Turkey had received at least eight years’ schooling; from the age of six years, they spent eight years in compulsory, continuous education. The government has increased this period to 12 years. Nobody opposes the duration of compulsory education, but controversy surrounds the segmentation of the twelve years into three cycles of four years each.

The first criticism made by the parliamentary opposition and many NGOs of the 4+4+4 formula relates to children who are obliged to start primary school at the age of 5 years. The former law provided for children aged 72 months (6 years) to start primary school, but the new reform lowers this limit of 72 months to 60 months. This means that children aged 60 months (5 years) who fulfil certain educational criteria should start school, even if their parents do not accept this, with the only way around the law being payment of a sum of money.

The other criticism focuses on the authorisation to reopen so-called Imam Hatip schools from elementary level. The new law provides that, at the end of the first cycle of four years, when the child has therefore reached the age of ten, he/she might be steered towards a branch of vocational education, notably Imam Hatip schools. These schools for educating imams turned themselves into ordinary schools a long time ago and are prized by conservative families.

Under the new law, children who have not chosen an Imam Hatip school now have the possibility of choosing three optional courses in religion at school, entitled ’The Qur’an’, ’The life of Mohammed’ and ’Main religious knowledge’. With these mandatory lessons in religion, a child from the age of 11 who does not go to an Imam Hatip school has the option of taking four courses in religion, equivalent to 8 hours of religious instruction in total.

Source : Le petit journal.

D 20 December 2012    AArif Gümus

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