Schools increasingly religious in Turkey

Istanbul, Turkey - Turkey may be a secular country, but the government is turning several secular schools into religious institutions under controversial education reforms. And the schools are being received with mixed results.

Many parents in Turkey were in for a shock this month when they discovered that their children's schools had been turned into Imam Hatips. Religious schools were originally created to teach future imams or religious leaders.

But not everyone was unhappy at the change: at one school, a mother, wearing a headscarf, believes it's a good thing.

"I want my child to learn about his religion […] because we are a Muslim country so religion must be part of our education," she said.

Another parent was less enthusiastic about the change.

"We want our children to be educated according to the principles of secularism," he said.

He believes that things are changing in Turkey. Imam Hatips used to be part of Turkey's education system, but most of them were closed down in the 90s as part of the pro-secular military-inspired crackdown on the country's Islamic movement.

Arduous work for the children

The schools combine a normal curriculum with hours of studying and reciting the Koran. And despite becoming popular with Turkey's largely religious population, it means, on average, an extra 2 to 3 hours daily at school. Still, children like 14-year-old Mehmet are not complaining.

"I don't want to become an imam. But religious education is important to me. I see it as education in life, so I don't see it as extra work. I am happy to learn it," he said.

Imam Hatip education starts at the age of nine, and the schools fill an important role for the country's pious community, said Mehmet's teacher Azmi Dogan.

"The students here get educated in every field of Islamic study whether it's the interpretations of Islam as well as the prophet's words," he said.

The children learn Arabic to understand the Quran in its original language, so every child who leaves here is qualified to become an imam or a religious official.

Turkey's latest battleground

Since Imam Hatips were introduced in the 1950s, they have been a controversial topic in the debate over Turkey's secular state. The schools' combination of modern education with religion can be positive, according to Kenan Cayir, who teaches sociology at Istanbul's Bilgi University.

"They promote an understanding that religion does not necessarily conflict with modernity, so religion and modernity can be together," he said.

The Islamist-rooted government claims that the Imam Hatip expansion is only about restoring the schools that were closed down in the 90s. But such claims have done little to curtail the growing anger among some parents. Parents, who have protested outside schools, claim that the government is imposing religion on their children.

Under the new regulations introduced by the government, it's extremely difficult for parents to change the school their children go to. In Istanbul alone 67 secular schools have been converted to Imam Hatips - many in staunchly secular parts of the city. And they could be just a start.

"We will increase the number of these schools in records. We have the chance to turn all schools into Imam Hatip schools," said Ali Boga, member of parliament for the ruling AK party.

He attended an Iman Hatip himself, as did the country's prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan. The education minister has described opponents of the reforms as either terrorist supporters or fanatical secularists. The education system may become the latest battleground over the future of the Turkish secular state.