Muslim group seeks end to compulsory classes

Ankara, Turkey - A moderate Turkish Muslim group has collected 1mn signatures and plans to press the Turkish government to end compulsory religious classes in public schools, a representative of the group, the Alevis, told AFP on Tuesday.

“The Turkish constitution specifically sets out a secular Turkish state, but you make the teaching of religion mandatory in school,” said Atilla Erden, secretary general of the Federation of Alevis Associations. “This is not acceptable.”

Erden said the 1mn signatures were collected across Turkey and throughout Europe, and the group planned to present them to Turkish leaders, notably President Ahmet Necdet Sezer.

The religious and morality textbooks used in Turkish high schools lean toward Sunni beliefs shared by the majority of Turks.

The Alevi faith, a distant relative of Shia Islam, is generally known to be friendly to secularism and gender equality.

Although they account for about a fifth of Turkey’s 70mn population, Alevis are denied the status of a separate sect and, unlike the Sunnis, receive no financial support from the government.

The European Union, which Turkey is seeking to join, has urged Ankara to grant the Alevis minority status, sparking criticism from Turkish nationalists that Brussels is aiming to foment divisions even within Turkey’s Muslim population.