News media, and The Religion Guy, catch up with yet another Mideast religious minority

Last year the Knights of Columbus sent Secretary of State John Kerry a 278-page report portraying in detail what the title called “Genocide Against Christians in the Middle East (.pdf here).”

The media should be paying continual attention to this minority’s disastrous decline in its historic heartland under pressure from Muslim extremists and chaos otherwise.

The largest targeted group is the Copts, the original ethnic Egyptians with a heritage that dates to Christ’s apostles, making up perhaps 10 percent of the national population. In Syria, where “Christians” were first given that name, believers constituted a solid and generally respected 12 percent of the population before the ruinous civil war erupted. Numbers have plummeted there and in Iraq, where Christians constituted 7 percent until recent times. Conditions are also harsh in neighboring countries.

Western media coverage of the Christians’ plight should acknowledge that extremists also visit death and devastation upon legions of their fellow Muslims, including groups regarded as heterodox. Oddly, Syria has been ruled largely by members of one such off-brand minority, the Assad clan’s Alawites.  

Given the complexity of world religions, even a seasoned reporter can miss an important group. And The Religion Guy confesses he was essentially unaware of one, the Alevis, until they were treated July 23 in a comprehensive New York Times report by Turkey correspondent Patrick Kingsley. Foreign Affairs magazine says this religio-ethnic group claims up to one-fifth of Turkey’s 80 million citizens.

Syria’s Alawites and the Alevis are not to be confused, though both are offshoots of Shi’a Islam that developed into new, heterodox forms of Islam if not new religions altogether,  drawing elements from non-Muslim faiths.

Most Alevis are either Turks or come from the nation’s ethnic Kurdish community that has its own struggles with the majority. Newswriters can gain further valuable background on them from an article by Martin van Bruinessen, an expert on Turks and Kurds at Holland’s Utrecht University.

Traditionally, Alevi texts were not written down by the priestly caste, which maintained a tight monopoly on religious knowledge. Van Bruinessen  reports that Alevis’ modern move from isolated rural strongholds to urban areas has changed what was a “secret, initiatory, locally anchored, and orally transmitted religion” into one with “formalized, or at least written, doctrine and ritual.”

Alevism ignores such Islamic “pillars” as the pilgrimage to Mecca, the month-long Ramadan fast each year, and the five mandatory prayer times each day. Nor does it uphold sharia (religious law) embraced by orthodox Sunnis. Like some radical Shi’as, the faith regards as superhuman if not divine the Prophet Muhammad’s cousin and son-in-law Ali. The religion drew some elements from Christianity and other pre-Muslim religions in Turkey and Iran.

Turkish authorities do not regard Alevism as authentically Muslim and erect orthodox mosques near Alevi prayer halls to compete. By Kinglsey’s account, the Alevis suffer from such harassment, fear, and discrimination more than murder and mayhem, though there’ve been major bloody assaults in past times. The ruling Justice and Development Party regime of Recep Tayip Erdogan even tried an “opening” to the Alevis years ago.

But as the government turns more authoritarian their situation is tenuous, partly because they naturally favored Turkey’s now-waning secularist neutrality on religion. Howard Eissenstat of St. Lawrence University told The Times that Erdogan’s rule is becoming “just as chauvinistic as his predecessors,” indicating that “there is really only one true way to be part of the Turkish nation.”

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