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12-year-old boy’s suspicious death reignites debate about religious cults in Turkey

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A 12-year-old boy was found dead in a barn next to the illegally run madrasa, or religious school, he used to attend in southeastern Turkey in a development that brought debates about religious groups and religious education in the country back into the spotlight.

Abdulbaki Dakak, who had been missing since June 13, was found hanged in a barn next to the religious school he had been attending, which was run illegally by the Semerkand Foundation. Dakak’s body was found by other children attending the course.

He had reportedly been sent to the school in Beşat, which provided accommodation to 20 students, by his family a year ago from Şanlıurfa’s Ceylanpınar district, which was 85 kilometers away. Dakak was reportedly not happy about being there and attempted to leave the school several times but was sent back by his family.

The incident was reported by the Turkish press as a suicide, yet there are widespread suspicions about the facts surrounding the tragedy.

A relative of the boy who requested anonymity told the Gazete Duvar news website that he was not the kind of a boy who would take his own life and that the family is waiting for his autopsy report to be released.

The relative said Dakak had no problems with his family and that he was a happy and smart boy, adding that his family sent him to the religious school so that he could be well informed about his religion and practice it. He was also attending a state-run middle school in the area.

The relative also said they found it suspicious that the people who ran the madrasa did not immediately look for Dahak in the vicinity of the school.

Local journalist Mehmet Yetim tweeted that he does not believe the boy’s death was a suicide. He said he tried to reach the boy’s family but that they did not want to speak to him. Yetim said the family sees the incident as “fate” and does not want to question it further.

The school was opened in September 2018 with a ceremony attended by local ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) officials. It was run by the Semerkand Foundation, affiliated with the Menzil community, a sub-branch of the Nakşibendi cult.

Following the tragedy the madrasa was closed, and an imam who was not officially appointed to the madrasa was taken into custody.

Religious cults in Turkey frequently come to public attention with claims of psychological and physical abuse of children who are entrusted to them by conservative families.

According to Turkey’s main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP), the AKP government is responsible for the boy’s death due to its policies undermining the principle of secularism in the country and its support for religious cults in return for their followers’ support in elections.

Critics say there are hundreds of such madrasas run by religious cults in Turkey without any checks or oversight.

CHP deputy group chairman Özgür Özel announced on Friday that his party had tasked several lawmakers from Şanlıurfa and Diyarbakır provinces with investigating Dakak’s death.

Lawmakers from the pro-Kurdish Green Left Party (YSP) also took action on the suspicious death of Dakak and brought it to parliament’s agenda with an inquiry directed to Family and Social Services Minister Mahinur Özdemir Göktaş.

In early 2022 Turkey was shaken by a similar tragedy when a 20-year-old medical faculty student, Enes Kara, died by suicide after being subjected to mobbing in his student apartment, which was linked to an Islamic cult, in addition to pressure from his parents.

Kara’s suicide led to outrage and a heated debate about the rising influence of religious cults in the country under the rule of the AKP government as well as the effects of parental pressure on children.

Religious cults in Turkey also came to the public agenda again in December, when the daughter of a man affiliated with the İsmailağa community sparked outrage due to her criminal complaints based on the allegation that she was married off at the age of six and has been subjected to sexual abuse ever since.

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