Turkey's Supreme Court of Appeals ruled in favor of a court decision that designates cemevis – houses of worship of the Alevi faith – officially as houses of worship and their utility bills should be paid by the state.
The legal process was launched by the Cem Foundation, which focuses on issues related to the Alevi community in Turkey, after it filed a lawsuit in order for cemevis to be regarded as official places of worship thus their electricity bills should be paid by the government.
Houses of worship are exempt from utility bills in Turkey, but this exemption often applies for mosques and masjids administered by the Presidency of Religious Affairs (DİB), churches run by the Greek Orthodox and Armenian patriarchates and the Vatican, and synagogues of the Chief Rabbinate of Turkey.
Riyad Yıldız, one of the attorneys following the case, said that the process has been continuing for some 15 years. Now that the Supreme Court of Appeals approved the decision, the foundation expects legal regulations from the government, he added.
"Alevism is not accepted as a religious belief by law. The government should make arrangements and designate Alevism as a faith group," Yıldız said.
The legal process was first started after Cem Foundation stopped paying the electricity bills of affiliated cemevis. This prompted local electricity distribution company BEDAŞ to commence execution proceedings against the foundation for unpaid bills.
A local court first ruled in favor of BEDAŞ, however, the Supreme Court of Appeals reversed the decision following the ruling of the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) which designated cemevis as places of worship in 2014.
After the reversal of the court decision, BEDAŞ relaunched a lawsuit over unpaid bills, but this time the local court determined in favor of the Cem Foundation, one of the main Alevi interest groups in Turkey.
Alevis are the second largest religious faith community in Turkey. However, language, belief and ethnic background are not registered in the national census; therefore, it is not possible to have official statistics about the number of Alevis.
On the basis of reliable academic research, the population of Alevis is estimated at approximately 20 million out of a total population of 77 million in Turkey.
The interpretation of Alevi faith and practices also differ from group to group. Overall, Alevism can be described as a branch of Shiite Islam heavily influenced by faith systems and culture of nomadic Turkic peoples.
Many religious groups, including Alevis, criticize the DİB for being solely focused mainstream Hanafi and Shafi schools of Sunni Islam, and demand the institution to be reformed to cover other faith groups.
The debate around cemevis is relatively new since Alevis were usually a rural population scattered throughout Anatolia throughout centuries. The need for large Alevi houses of worship, which would also serve as cultural centers, emerged mainly after Turkey's rapid industrialization started in the 1960s and the influx of rural population into cities.