Compulsory religion classes illegal

Ankara, Turkey - A Turkish high court ruled Monday that religious education classes geared toward Sunni Muslims should not be compulsory, a major victory for a Shiite branch of Islam.

The ruling affecting Turkey's Alevi community is also likely to please the European Union which has made religious liberties a condition for Turkey's membership bid. The EU has been pressing Turkey to address Alevi claims.

The Alevis are followers of a tradition rooted in Shiite beliefs, and have long complained of discrimination and forced assimilation through mandatory courses on Sunni Islam in schools. An overwhelming majority of Turks are Sunni.

The decision means Turkey's Education Ministry will now have to either introduce classes geared toward the Alevi faith or make religious classes non-mandatory.

"For the Religious Culture and Morality course to be mandatory under its current content is against the law," the court ruled.

The case was initially filed by an Alevi family in Istanbul who objected to their children being forced to attend Sunni-oriented classes.

Estimates of the number of Alevis vary. Alevis themselves claim to represent nearly a third of Turkey's Muslims - or more than 20 million people. The U.S. State Department's International Religious Freedom Report for Turkey estimates Alevis number at least 15 million people, or about 20 percent of the population.

The Alevis are mostly confined to Turkey, and diverge greatly from Shiite majorities in neighboring Iran and Iraq. They incorporate rites such as singing, ritual chanting and dance, and shun such Islamic practices as the separation of men and women in prayer and the hajj pilgrimage to Mecca.