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A demonstrator holds a placard reads that: "Budget for education, not for the religious affairs directorate!" during a rally against the government's latest religion-related policies on the education system, in Istanbul, Turkey December 10, 2023. Reuters/Murad Sezer
Turkey's steps to promote traditional moral values in students, increase Islamic lessons and open prayer rooms in schools are fuelling secularist concerns in the Muslim country and laying bare divisions over the role religion should have in education.
The measures, introduced recently, have fired up tensions over what is already a highly charged subject as Turkey marks 100 years since Mustafa Kemal Ataturk founded the staunchly secular republic.
During two decades in power, President Tayyip Erdogan and his Islamist-rooted AK Party have reshaped Turkey according to his conservative beliefs, opening many Islamic "Imam Hatip" schools in line with his goal of creating a "pious generation".
Secularist opposition parties, unions and many parents say Islam is now encroaching in schools generally.
Illustrating the rising strains, some 2,000 people protested in Istanbul on Sunday, chanting their opposition to the latest religion-related policies in a rally backed by the main opposition parties and leftist groups.
"The AK Party government has really taken Turkey backwards," said Duzgun Ugur, 65. He stood below a statue depicting Ataturk teaching children the Latin script, which replaced the Perso-Arabic one used by the Ottoman Empire as part of his modernising and secularising reforms nearly a century ago.
"We want compulsory religion classes abolished," Ugur said. "It should be up to us to give religious lessons to children at home, raising them as we wish: secular, democratic and free,"
The rally was held by groups representing Alevis, followers of an Islamic tradition differing from the beliefs of the Sunni majority. They account for some 15-20% of Turkey's 85 million population and many of whom are suspicious of the AKP's goals.
The number of Imam Hatip schools, founded to educate Islamic preachers, has risen to around 1,700 from 450 in 2002 when the AKP first came to power. Their student body has risen six-fold to more than half a million.
But secularist criticism is now directed at the regular school system, where students take two compulsory religion lessons a week and now must take additional religion and morality classes.
Separately, under a regulation that came into force in October, all schools must make spaces available for what is known as a mescit, a small place for Islamic worship.
"State schools are being transformed into (religious) madrasas by making other schools' curriculums similar to Imam Hatips," Kadem Ozbay, head of the education sector union Egitim-Is, told Reuters.
Secularist unease is focused on a scheme dubbed CEDES, which the education ministry says aims to encourage children to adopt "national, moral, humane, spiritual and cultural values", but which opponents say has Islamic values at its heart.
Egitim-Is has opened a court case seeking the annulment of CEDES - a joint project of the education, sport and youth ministries and the religious affairs directorate - on the grounds of it being anti-constitutional and anti-secular.
They complain that under the scheme hundreds of Islamic preachers, or imams, and other religious officials were being sent to schools. The Education Ministry has said no such "spiritual advisers" have been appointed to schools, with any such advisers only involved in activities outside school.
The Education Ministry did not respond to Reuters' questions on the issue of religion in education. Education Minister Yusuf Tekin and his ministry have denied any Islamic agenda in response to many parliamentary questions from lawmakers who have voiced disquiet over the scheme.
"The CEDES Project is not religious education or training," Tekin said, adding that it was in line with the constitution and had received very positive feedback from parents, students and teachers in its pilot stage.
"The project is a club activity focused on experiencing and implementing universal values and our national values," he added, stressing that these 'values clubs' were voluntary and subject to parental consent.
However, MP Nurten Yontar from the main opposition, secularist Republican People's Party (CHP), highlighted an event in her constituency in the northwestern province of Tekirdag where children cleaned a mosque.
The local Islamic official's office shared photos of smiling children vacuuming, polishing and dusting the mosque, one of a series of social media posts about such mosque visits under the scheme.
"The AKP government is trying to shape our country's education system in line with ideological goals based on religious principles," Yontar said.
Erdogan himself acknowledged the political divisiveness of the issue in a speech last year, greeting a small child in the audience and describing him as part of "the pious generation." He added: "This CHP fumes and goes crazy when I say the pious generation."
Other CEDES activities posted on social media include talks on morality, visits to people in need and environmental activities such as planting trees and clearing up rubbish.
But Omer Yilmaz, head of a parents' association which is campaigning against the scheme, dismissed the idea that it did not have religious motivation.
"They dress it up in that way to give the project a more secular appearance. When you look below the surface you can see there is a hidden agenda," he said.
"They are promoting the values of a particular religion."
By Daren Butler and Birsen Altayli
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