The poison of sectarian hatred is spreading to Turkey from Syria as a result of the Turkish government giving full support to militant Sunni Muslims in the Syrian civil war.
The Alevi, a long-persecuted Shia sect to which 10-20 million Turks belong, say they feel menaced by the governmentâ€™s pro-Sunni stance in the Shia-Sunni struggle that is taking place across the Muslim world.
Nevzat Altun, an Alevi leader in the Gazi quarter in Istanbul, says: â€œPeople here are scared that if those who support sharia come to power in Syria, the same thing could happen in Turkey.â€ He says that the Alevi of Turkey feel sympathy for the Syrian Alawites, both communities holding similar, though distinct, Shia beliefs and the Alevi oppose Turkeyâ€™s support for rebels fighting to overthrow Syriaâ€™s Alawite-dominated government.
Sectarian faultlines between the Sunni majority and the Alevi, Turkeyâ€™s largest religious minority, have always existed but are becoming deeper, more embittered and openly expressed. Atilla Yeshilada, a political and economic commentator, says that â€œanything [Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip] Erdogan says against the Alawites of Syria is full of sectarian innuendoes for the Aleviâ€.
Alawites who have fled to Turkey to escape the violence in Syria often find they are little safer after they have crossed the Turkish border. They say they dare not enter government-organised refugee camps because they are frightened of being attacked by the rebel Free Syrian Army as soon as it is discovered they are not Sunni.
Some Alawites have found their way to Istanbul where they are being looked after by the Alevi community. â€œA month ago we found Alawites wandering the streets of Istanbul and sleeping in parks where they earned a little money selling water and paper bags,â€ says Zaynal Odabashi, the head of the Pir Sultan Abdal Alevi cultural and religious centre in Gazi district where 180,000 out of a population of 520,000 are Alevi. He says that â€œwe decided to take them in though the governor of Istanbul told us not toâ€, explaining that some 40 Syrian Alawite refugees are living in large tents at his centre alone and another 400 have been found places to sleep in houses nearby. The three million Syrian Arab Alawites may differ in religious practices from the Turkish Alevi, but they both follow core Shia beliefs such as reverence for the Twelve Imams. They both feel threatened by Sunni militants and know they are easily identifiable as even the poorest house has pictures of the Shia saints on the walls.
â€œThey consider us as non-believers,â€ says Mr Odabashi, adding: â€œOf course, our people feel sympathy for the Alawites and we are against Turkeyâ€™s involvement in the war in Syria.â€
Alawite refugees fed and housed by the Alevi tell grim tales of torture, disappearances and death. On a mat outside a big tent at the Pir Sultan centre lay an elderly looking man who said he is a Turkoman Alawite from Damascus whose district had been captured by the Free Syrian Army that held him and his 12-year-old daughter for up to 27 days.
His frightened eyes darted nervously around as he said his name was Ali Jabar and he was not sure of some details of what had happened to him because he had been blindfolded all the time he was held. His captivity began when there was a ring at his door at midnight and a voice said a neighbour needed to see him, but when he opened the door a man hit him on the head with his gun butt.
He was blindfolded by his captors whom he identified as the Free Syrian Army. They asked him if he believed in Bashar al-Assad and demanded he curse Imam Ali, but he had said: â€œNo, not even if you cut my throat.â€
They whipped him and set fire to a plastic bag so molten plastic dripped on to to his back. He rolled up his shirt to reveal half-healed whip marks and burns and took off his shoes to show where several of his toenails had been ripped out with pliers. He expected to be killed, but instead the men who held him threw him out of a car on a country road where he was found by a shepherd. He does not know what has happened to his daughter.
Ali Jabar later met other Alawite Turkomans who had fled from Aleppo and were sleeping in parks in Damascus. They managed to secure enough money to take 42 of them to Turkey in a bus, but they thought it was too dangerous for them to enter Turkish refugee camps. They finally reached Istanbul where they did not know where to go until the Alevi of Gazi offered to help them. Turkish government supporters deny or play down the connection between the Alevi and the Alawites but there is a common bond as both feel endangered by growing Sunni hostility to all Shia sects, regardless of their precise religious beliefs. Dogan Bermek, the president of the Alevi Foundation, a lobbying group mostly made up of better-off Alevi, asserts: â€œIn Syria and in Turkey we are all the same Alevi. The differences between us are only regional because we have developed in different regions without contacts. We are on the same road though it has a thousand paths.â€