ANKARA Thousands of Turkish opposition supporters demonstrated in the capital Ankara on Tuesday against a government attempt to railroad a new education bill through parliament which secular parties say is designed to promote Islamic schooling.
The government wants to overturn a 1997 law imposed with the backing of the military which extended compulsory education from five to eight years, but also stopped under-15s attending religious "imam hatip" schools.
That led to a sharp decrease in the numbers at the schools which were originally set up to train Muslim clerics. Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan and nearly half his cabinet attended imam hatip schools.
The main secular opposition People's Republican Party (CHP) agrees on the need for education reform, but says Erdogan is seeking revenge for the 1997 law and attempting to bring about his stated desire to raise a "religious youth".
A 2010 World Bank study showed only 16 percent of 15-year-olds in Turkey attend schools with average reading, maths or science test scores comparable to or above an OECD average.
Relying on its large parliamentary majority, Erdogan's AK party is to introduce the education bill to the assembly later on Tuesday and plans to complete voting on it by Friday, or if that is not possible keep parliament open over the weekend until it is passed.
In response, the CHP decided to hold its weekly meeting of parliamentary deputies in an Ankara public square, the first time this has happened in the history of the republic since it was formed in 1923. The AK Party called it unconstitutional.
"The people and the CHP are claiming their rights in this national struggle," CHP deputy leader Erdogan Toprak told reporters at the square, accusing the AK Party' of bulldozing the bill through the committee stage where it packed the room so that no one from the opposition could get in.
"According to what constitution can you pass 19 articles in 20 minutes?" Toprak asked. "Despite all our efforts in the committee, neither were our contributions accepted, nor was any tolerance shown."
Faced with government efforts to rush it through parliament, Toprak said the CHP would do its best to hold up the bill, calling it "dynamite planted under the Turkish youth".
While the AK Party has won three elections since 2002 and remains popular, there is a large minority of urbanised Turks who are wary of its roots in political Islam and suspect it has plans to overturn, piece-by-piece, the secular republic.
At least 5,000 people filled Ankara's Tandogan Square, waving Turkish flags and carrying placards against the "4+4+4" education bill, so-called because it extends compulsory education to 12 years - four years primary, four years middle school, followed by four years of secondary school or vocational training.
Imam hatip schools would count as vocational training, allowing a boost to the numbers attending.
"4+4+4+Erdogan = 0," read one of the banners.
"I am a child of the republic. I am thinking of the future of my grandchildren," said 55-year-old Naciye Sahin. "This law will open the way to more headscarves and imam hatip schools. We don't want to be a part of that. We are children of the republic and we want to stay that way."
(Additional reporting by Tulay Karadeniz; Writing by Jon Hemming; Editing by Robin Pomeroy)