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Turkish Alevi, Sunni sects unite under same roof

ISTANBUL - Daily News with wires | 8/9/2010 12:00:00 AM |

The worship locations of the two major Islamic sects have been merged in a northern Turkish town by a cleric raised in the traditions of one group who later embraced worship in the other.

The worship locations of two major Islamic sects have been merged in a northern Turkish town by a cleric who was raised in the traditions of one, and later embraced worship in the other. Hazreti Ali Mosque and Cemevi is the house of worship where both services are offered – functioning as a mosque for Sunni Muslims and a cemevi for Alevis.

One of the biggest differences between the sects is that at an Alevi cemevi there is no imam. Ali Rıza Güvenkaya, whose family is Alevi, is the imam at the mosque in the new multi-denominational center. Güvenkaya said the Teravi prayers during Ramadan and the conversations of people among themselves are the best examples of how the two sects coexist at the center. The famous saying of Alevis, “Come on beloved let us be one, let us be alive,” is rapturously experienced at then complex in Fatsa, according to Güvenkaya.

Güvenkaya said the existence of the building has great meaning, adding, “Since I come from this sect, I know of [Alevi] traditions very well.” Güvenkaya was employed by the Presidency of Religious Affairs in another province, as all imams are official civil servants in Turkey, but he said the locals in Fatsa preferred him to be at their complex. “I came here by choice. We are running this together without discriminating against either sect in any way. The community is very happy about that.”

The religious complex was built in 1996, a year after a “Cemevi and Mosque Building Association” was founded in the Fatih neighborhood of Fatsa. The 174 square meters wide block of land was provided by a philanthropist as charity for the construction of the center. The first floor of the complex is a soup kitchen, the second floor is cemevi and the third is the mosque.

Alevis and Sunnis are sending a message of coexistence with this complex, according to Ali İhsan Kartal, President of the Cemevi and Mosque Building Association. “Those who prefer to go to the cemevi and those who prefer to go to the mosque, all in great ease. Everybody is committing their religious rituals according to their own beliefs. We are having our funerals here too. We have lived together until now and we will live together after this,” said Kartal.

Şener Yılmaz, mufti for the Fatsa District, said Imam Güvenkaya graduated from an Imam-Hatip Vocational Religious High School, therefore he is qualified to serve a community as an official cleric. “He was raised as a Sunni and an Imam-Hatip graduate. He has the knowledge and training to be an imam. Both Alevis and Sunnis are praying [at the complex] with tolerance for each other” said the mufti.

Alevism, a liberal sect of Islam, has distinct differences to the practices of Turkey’s Sunni majority. The Alevi house of worship is called a cemevi, while Sunnis worship in a mosque. Unlike most other Muslim practices, Alevi rituals are conducted mostly in Turkish and sometimes in Kurdish. The ceremony features music and dance (the combination of which is called “semah”). The two sects’ rules on fasting and prayer also differ with Alevism closely related to the Bektaşi Sufi lineage, in the sense that it also venerates Hacı Bektaş Veli, a saint from the 13th century.

Sunni dominance in the country is reflected by the fact that only mosques are recognized as Islamic houses of worship, while cemevis survive on local donations. The opposition to compulsory religious-education classes at high schools stems from the fact that until 2008, the Alevi community was ignored in the curriculum. In 2008, the Education Ministry included some passages about the community in textbooks but failed to placate Alevis. Parts of the Alevi community want the mandatory religion, culture and ethics class, which is based on Sunni Islam, to be transformed into a version that would include Alevis as equals, while others Alevi preferring that it be dismissed completely. This request has put Alevism on the “threat list” maintained by the Presidency of Religious Affairs in a report they put out last year.

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