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700,000 Turks in protest over pro-Islamic government

700,000 Turks in protest over pro-Islamic government

An estimated 700,000 pro-secular Turks marched in central Istanbul Sunday to demand the resignation of the government, which they fear is leading Turkey towards Islamic rule.
Protesters took to the streets following a sharp rise in tension between Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan's government and the powerful pro-secular military, which accuses the government of encouraging radical Islam.
"Turkey is secular and will remain secular," shouted thousands of flag-waving protesters, many of whom traveled to Istanbul from across the country overnight.
The demonstrators sang nationalist songs and demanded the resignation of the government, calling Erdogan a traitor.
"This government is the enemy of Ataturk," said 63-year-old Ahmet Yurdakul, a retired government employee, invoking the memory of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, who founded the modern republic as a secular nation. "It wants to drag Turkey to the dark ages."
Many said they saw it as their patriotic duty to join the protest: "They're trying to fool Turkey. In a few years it's going to explode," said Ilteris Mutlu, a 20-year-old student.
Many also said they came to show that the ruling party, which came to power with around 30 percent of the vote but holds more than 60 percent of the seats in parliament, did not have a mandate to do as it pleased.
"They have to hear us, because we are the majority of the country. We are 70 percent," said Emine Hacioglu, 35.
The packed meeting area in the Caglayan district was a sea of Turkey's red-colored star and crescent flag, which was draped on people like capes and fluttered from cars, motorcycles and buildings.
Police, who said the demonstrators numbered around 700,000, cordoned off the area and conducted body searches at several entry points.
More than 300,000 took part in a similar rally in Ankara, the capital, two weeks ago.
The latest demonstration was organized more than a week ago, but it came a day after Erdogan's government rejected the military's warning about the country's disputed presidential election and called it interference that is unacceptable in a democracy.
The ruling party's candidate for president, Foreign Minister Abdullah Gul, failed to win a first-round victory Friday in a parliamentary presidential vote marked by tensions between secularists and the pro-Islamic government. Most opposition legislators boycotted the vote and challenged its validity in the Constitutional Court.
The military said Friday night that it was gravely concerned and indicated it was willing to become more openly involved in the process _ a statement some interpreted as an ultimatum to the government to rein in officials who promote Islamic initiatives.
"The roads to Cankaya (the presidential palace) are closed to imams," the crowd chanted.
Some said Parliament Speaker Bulent Arinc was an enemy of the secular system, because he said the next president should be "pious."
Most of the protesters were strongly supportive of the army, which said Friday that it remained "the absolute defender of secularism."
"In a country like Turkey, which is not fully a democracy, the role of the army is a little different," said Haydar Kilic, a 50-year-old civil engineer. "The army here likes democracy, we know that."
Mehmet Gunes, 39, came with his wife, who wore an Islamic-style headscarf, and his two young children.
"We support what the army said. It's a warning," he said. "My wife wears a headscarf _ we're not against that. We came here to stand up for a secular, enlightened Turkey. Our children's future is important."
In the 1920s, with the Ottoman Empire in ruins, Ataturk set about a series of secular reforms that imposed Western laws, replaced Arabic script with the Latin alphabet, banned Islamic dress and granted women the right to vote.
The ruling party, however, has supported religious schools and tried to lift the ban on Islamic head scarves in public offices and schools. Secularists are also uncomfortable with the idea of Gul's wife, Hayrunisa, being in the presidential palace because she wears the traditional Muslim head scarf.
"We don't want a covered woman in Ataturk's presidential palace," said Ayse Bari, a 67-year-old housewife. "We want civilized, modern people there."
The military, one of the most respected institutions in Turkey, regards itself as the guardian of the secular system and has staged three coups since 1960.
"Neither Sharia, nor coup but fully democratic Turkey," read a banner carried by a demonstrator on Sunday.
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Associated Press Writer Selcan Hacaoglu in Ankara contributed to this report.
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Updated : 2021-05-08 01:45 GMT+08:00