In today’s Grand Chamber judgment1 in the case of İzzettin Doğan and Others v. Turkey (application no. 62649/10) the European Court of Human Rights held:
by 12 votes to 5, that there had been a violation of Article 9 (right to freedom of religion) of the European Convention on Human Rights, and
by 16 votes to 1, that there had been a violation of Article 14 (prohibition of discrimination) taken in conjunction with Article 9 of the European Convention.
The case concerned the domestic authorities’ refusal to provide the applicants, who are followers of the Alevi faith (the country’s second-largest faith in terms of the number of followers), with the public religious service which, in the applicants’ assertion, is provided exclusively to citizens adhering to the Sunni understanding of Islam.
The applicants had requested that the Alevi community be provided with religious services in the form of a public service; that Alevi religious leaders be recognised as such and recruited as civil servants; that the cemevis (the places where Alevis practise their religious ceremony, the cem) be granted the status of places of worship; and that State subsidies be made available to their community. Their requests were refused on the grounds that the Alevi faith is regarded by the authorities as a religious movement within Islam, more akin to the “Sufi orders”.
The Court held in particular that the authorities’ refusal amounted to a lack of recognition of the religious nature of the Alevi faith and its religious practice (cem), depriving the Alevi community’s places of worship (cemevis) and its religious leaders (dedes) of legal protection and entailing numerous consequences with regard to the organisation, continuation and funding of the community’s religious activities. In the Court’s view, the Alevi faith had significant characteristics that distinguished it from the understanding of the Muslim religion adopted by the Religious Affairs Department. The Court therefore found that there had been interference with the applicants’ right to freedom of religion and that the arguments relied on by the State to justify that interference were neither relevant nor sufficient in a democratic society.
The Court further observed a glaring imbalance between the status conferred on the understanding of the Muslim religion adopted by the Religious Affairs Department and benefiting from the religious public service, and that conferred on the applicants, as the Alevi community was almost wholly excluded from the public service in question and was covered by the legal regime governing the “Sufi orders” (tarikat), which were the subject of significant prohibitions. The Court therefore held that the applicants, as Alevis, were subjected to a difference in treatment for which there was no objective and reasonable justification.