Court says Turkish Islam lessons violate rights

Strasbourg, France - Compulsory religion classes for Muslim pupils in Turkey violate individual freedoms because they present only Sunni Islam and not minority views, the European Court of Human Rights ruled on Tuesday.

Plaintiff Hasan Zengin and his daughter Eylem brought the case to the Strasbourg-based court because the lessons ignored their Alevi beliefs, a Muslim minority that does not require five daily prayers or encourage pilgrimage to Mecca.

The exclusive focus on Sunni Islam, the majority school in Turkey and the rest of the Islamic world, meant the classes were not objective and violated Turkey's official policy of secularism, they argued.

The government in Turkey, where national courts rejected the suit that Hasan Zengin filed on behalf of himself and his school-age daughter, contested the charges and said the classes promoted understanding, tolerance and respect.

In its ruling, the court said the standard Islam course "does not meet the requirements of objectivity and pluralism and provides no appropriate method for ensuring respect for parents' convictions."

Under Turkish law, Christian or Jewish pupils at a state school can opt out of the Muslim religion classes, but all Muslims must take the Sunni-oriented Islam course.

Turkey is officially secular although most people are Muslim and an 15 million are Alevis, about a fifth of the population. Considered heretics by some Sunnis, Alevis allow alcohol and let men and women pray together in places of worship known as 'cemevi' and not mosques.

Turkey's ruling AK Party, which is heavily Sunni-dominated and has Islamist roots, is now drawing up a new, more liberal constitution and is considering making religious instruction optional in schools.

(Additional reporting by Gareth Jones in Ankara)