Turkish Minority Stages Mass Rights Rally in Istanbul

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Thousands of members of Turkey's Alevi religious minority on Sunday held a mass rally in central Istanbul, demanding greater rights and the preservation of the country's secular system.

The Alevis, who belong to an offshoot of Shia Islam, are Turkey's biggest religious minority, believed to make up at least 10 percent of the population.

Thousands of Alevis thronged the quayside and square in the Kadikoy district of Istanbul on the Asian side of the Bosphorus, an Agence France-Presse photographer reported.

They brandished slogans in favour of Turkey's secular system, which many Alevis fear is being eroded under the rule of Islamic-rooted President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

Alevis have traditionally been champions of secularity in Turkey, believing it to be the best way to protect their own rights in the majority Sunni Muslim state.

The Alevis have long been suspicious of Erdogan and the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) although the president has tried to build bridges with the community.

The protest organizers complained that Turkey was heading towards "reactionary" rule under the AKP, which "took no account of different beliefs and identities."

A chief demand of the Alevi community is the recognition of their prayer halls -- known as cemevis -- as places of worship. Alevis do not worship in mosques.

The community also wants children to be able to take special courses to study the Alevi religion in schools.

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