These days in the small courtyard at the Pir Sultan Cemevi, a house of worship in Istanbul, a few women sit on benches, men stand around chatting and sipping tea, while children haggle over donated toys. They are all ethnic Turkmen refugees from Syria, and while they are happy to have escaped the immediate threat of violence in their homeland, they are nervous that trouble may follow them in Turkey.
The approximately 100 refugees now staying at Pir Sultan Cemevi are Alevis, members of an Islamic sect that has had a troubled relationship with Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s government. Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) has its roots in Sunni Islam, while the Alevi sect is considered an offshoot of Shi’a Islam. Alevis by some estimates constitute as much as 20 percent of Turkey’s population, but many say they experience regular discrimination at the hands of the AKP.
According to the Disaster and Emergency Management Presidency of Turkey, an agency known by its Turkish acronym AFAD, the country is currently accommodating over half a million Syrian refugees, roughly 200,000 of whom are housed in official refugee camps. Turkey’s much-lauded open door policy has cost the country nearly $2 billion so far, according to AFAD. However, many Alevi refugees are leery of Turkish hospitality, and tend to avoid refugee camps near by the Syrian border that they perceive as predominantly Sunni.
Cemsi Onuk, head of the Pir Sultan Association’s Gaziosmanpasa branch, recounted how association members read about a group of Turkmen Alevi families stranded in a public park in Istanbul in a daily newspaper and decided to assist them. “They did not trust us in the beginning, they were very afraid that we would hand them over to the police. We had to show them pictures of Prophet Ali to convince them,” Onuk said. He pointed out that Alevis back in Syria are often targeted by armed sectarian fighters that are also fighting to oust Syrian President Bashar al Assad. Erdogan at the same time has offered vociferous support for the rebel cause in Syria. “Turkey supports the fighters that attacked these people,” Onuk said.
Turkey has long been criticized for failing to grant full freedoms to its religious minorities, including Alevis. Intent on ousting the Assad regime, Erdogan’s government has quietly allowed both armed and unarmed Syrian opposition groups to use Turkish territory for logistical bases, and has facilitated direct and indirect support of the anti-Assad Free Syrian Army (FSA).
Citing a rise of sectarian tension within Turkey, as well as a heightened risk of a spillover of the Syrian chaos, a recent report published by the International Crisis Group (ICG) urged Turkey to “adopt a profile of a more balanced regional power, rather than a Sunni Muslim one.”
Ongoing AKP support for Islamist rebels in Syria, along with the Erdogan government’s steadfast refusal to act on Turkish Alevi demands for religious liberty, is quickly hardening Alevi opposition: “The Turkish government increasingly displays a staunchly Sunni mentality, and increasing hostility towards Alevis,” said Taylan Yildirim, an activist for Alevi rights. “This brings us closer together, also in the face of the war in Syria.”
Turkish diplomats maintain that the country’s open door policy does not discriminate against any Syrians seeking shelter within its borders. “We do not ask people fleeing to Turkey what their religion, their sect, or their ethnicity is,” said one Turkish foreign ministry official. “Everybody is welcome, and we have not separated refugee camps by any of these criteria.”
However, the ICG report pointed out that the refugee camps, built close to the Syrian border, often serve as a base for the mostly Sunni Muslim rebel fighters, leading Alevi refugees to fear for their own safety there: “The camps are full of rebel fighters and terrorists. These are the people we had to run away from in Syria,” 35-year-old Meryem from Aleppo said in an interview. “They would kill us. We are afraid that the [Turkish] police will take us to the camps.”
She said that Turkish officials have tried twice to take them to a refugee camp in Kilis, a town close to the Syrian border, but both times the Alevi association intervened on their behalf. “We are very grateful for their help,“ Meryem said. “We feel safe here.”
She added that sectarianism only became an issue in Syria after the conflict started in early 2011: “We were happy before, we had a good life. But as soon as Turkey allowed rebel fighters to cross its border into Syria, things started to get very bad. There used to be Sunni Muslims, Alevis, Kurds and Arabs in [our town]. But now, nobody trusts each other anymore.”
According to her, 3,000 people had to leave her hometown in fear of Islamist attacks. “Why does Turkey help the Islamists? We don’t trust the Turkish government, but we trust our Alevi friends here.”
Taylan Yildirim said that the tension between Alevis in Turkey and the AKP leadership posed a significant risk in light of the conflict in Syria: “There is definitely a trust issue with the Turkish government, and currently it does everything to make matters worse.”