The Diyarbakır Cemevi

Diyarbakır, 2011

The Turkish state did not recognize Alevis as an ethno-religious identity group at the founding of the republic in 1923, and the situation remains the same to this day. Although the Turkish state claims to be constitutionally secular, the Directorate of Religious Affairs (Diyanet), which has functioned as a state apparatus since 1924, attempts to maintain control over religion with a Sunni Islamic framework. The institution has thus far refused to recognize the Alevi faith and has been used by the state as a tool to maintain various discriminatory policies. First among this discrimination is the fact that Alevi houses of worship—called a cemevi—are not officially recognized as such and are thus deprived of the state financial support mosques receive. According to the policies shaped in line to Sunni Islam, mosques are the only houses of worship for Muslims, leaving cemevis unrecognized as houses of worship for those with different beliefs. Many Alevis assert that it is essential that cemevis be officially recognized for the continued survival of the Alevi faith and identity.

According to the Alevi Bektaşi Federation, an estimated 20 million Alevis live in Turkey and 1 million in Europe. There are also approximately 1,500 cemevis in Turkey. Despite the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) government having made promises concerning a so-called Alevi opening since it first came to power in 2002, the party's ideology has prevented any positive developments from meetings and initiatives from being transformed into legislation. With elections nearing in June of 2023, however, discussions and attempts to grant cemevis official status of houses of worship have again been raised. In a statement made in October of 2022, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan said, the Alevi-Bektaşi Culture and Cemevi Directorate will conduct the management of all cemevis. All of cemevis' problems related to lighting, drinking and utility water, and maintenance expenses will be solved. Likewise, personnel can be assigned upon request to faith leaders responsible for overseeing services at cemevies.”





The construction of the cemevi in Diyarbakır started in July of 2001. Representatives of various non-governmental organizations, the mayor of the Diyarbakır Metropolitan Municipality, and religious opinion leaders attended the groundbreaking ceremony. The construction did not take long and in December of the same year, the cemevi opened for worship with another ceremony attended by a large crowd. The opening ceremony was attended by representatives from the Pir Sultan Abdal Cultural Association, the Alevi-Bektaşi Federation, the Peace and Democracy Party (BDP), a number of non-governmental organizations that advocate for Alevi rights, Diyarbakır Metropolitan Municipality Mayor Osman Baydemir, and thousands of people who came in solidarity. The ceremony included a semah, which is an important part of Alevi religious practice. The primary goal of the project was to create a space that would allow Alevis to fulfill the requirements of their faith. The cemevi itself includes areas with both religious and social functions, such as the conference hall used for cem, a section for sacrifices and food-sharing rituals called lokma, a condolences room, administrative office, cafeteria, and funeral room. The different sections of the cemevi were named after historical figures in order to keep the collective memory of Alevis alive. For example, the conference hall was named after Seyît Riza, who was executed after the Dersim massacre of 1937. Since its opening, the cemevi has been host to various conferences and activities held in line with Alevi faith, history, and identity.

Since the founding of the republic, Alevis in Turkey have campaigned against the denial and nonrecognition of their identity. The opening of the cemevi in Diyarbakır, however, has given local Alevis a religious space where they can worship according to their beliefs. Considering that Alevis have been subjected to massacres and constant discrimination throughout history, the building of this house of worship is an effort to hold this reality in remembrance and raise awareness against the discrimination Alevis face. At the opening ceremony, representatives from Alevi civil society organizations emphasized the beginning of a new future in solidarity with oppressed groups in the country, which suggests that this project is a contribution to Turkey's democratization process. Baydemir, the municipal metropolitan mayor of Diyarbakır emphasized the city's multi-religious and multi-ethnic past and that the fact that different faith groups such as Alevis having their own houses of worship would keep alive the city's past and pluralism.

In February of 2013, then Prime Minister Ergoğan made the claim: "Cemevis are cultural spaces. Islam has mosques. Have you ever heard of a house of worship in Christianity other than a church? Our Alevi brothers are Muslims like us, but they have a different interpretation of Islam." The biggest challenge faced by this and similar projects is the government's insistence on viewing Alevism as a sect of Sunni Islam. This position the government takes perpetuates the ongoing ethno-religious hierarchy in Turkey and tacitly legitimizes discrimination of Alevis. At present, while Turkey is home to 84,684 mosques, the country only has 1,500 cemevis. As a case in point, the government rejected then Republican People's Party (CHP) MP Hüseyin Aygün's proposal in 2013 to build a cemevi within the parliament building for the use of Alevi MPs and parliamentary staff. A circular the CHP issued in 2015 saw cemevis be recognized as official houses of worship in 231 municipalities run by the party. Many difficulties persist, however, since the state has not officially endorsed the recognition. In 2020, the AKP and Nationalist Action Party (MHP) members of the Istanbul Metropolitan Municipality Council rejected a proposal by its CHP members to recognize cemevis as houses of worship and bestow upon them the benefits from various municipal services free of charge. A similar proposal was accepted by the Izmir Metropolitan Municipality Council and cemevis were elevated to the status of houses of worship in the city.

Even though the ruling AKP has and continues to make various promises about the so-called Alevi opening in the run-up to elections, it has yet to take any real steps to realize its promises. Accordingly, attempts to have cemevis officially recognized as houses of worship have yet to bear any fruit. If cemevis gain official status as houses of worship, they would be exempted from payments, such as for utilities, as is the case for mosques, churches, and synagogues, and would instead be covered by the state. One of the biggest problems currently is the financial burden these expenditures bring to cemevis.