Turkish president vetoes controversial bill on religious schools

Turkish President Ahmet Necdet Sezer vetoed a controversial education reform bill on the grounds that it promoted religious schools and infringed on the secular principles of the Muslim nation.

The government of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, which has its roots in a banned Islamist movement, backed the law in parliament earlier this month despite a public outcry and objections from the influential army.

The bill was designed to make it easier for graduates of religious vocational schools to obtain university degrees other than in divinity studies, thus opening the way for them to hold public office.

Sezer, a staunch secularist, rejected four key articles of the legislation, saying that "the real aim" of the bill was to encourage youths to attend religious schools.

"It is a fact, however, that the number of students attending such schools is in excess even today," the president said in a 19-page statement explaining his decision.

The so-called imam-hatip vocational schools are tasked by law to train imams and other Islamic clergy for Turkey's mosques, but many believe that they have become a breeding ground for Islamist political movements.

"Allowing graduates of religious schools to benefit from the same university education rights as graduates of general high schools does not comply with... the principles of secularism.

"Legislation which... does not comply with the state's objectives and raison d'etre and which is passed only thanks to parliamentary majority has an adverse impact on the conscience of the society," Sezer said.

Under the existing university entrance system, it is almost impossible for graduates of religious schools to get a place at institutions of higher education other than theology faculties.

The measure effectively serves to block Islamist-leaning Turks from obtaining degrees that would later allow them to hold important jobs in the public service.

Erdogan, who himself went to such a religious school, has advocated the reform as a means of ensuring equal opportunity for graduates of vocational schools to continue their education in whatever field they chose.

Though it has disavowed its Islamist origins, Erdogan's Justice and Development Party (AKP) is still suspected by many of harboring Islamist ambitions.

Parliament will now review the rejected articles, if the government decides to press ahead with the reform.

IF the bill is sent back to Sezer untouched, the president has to sign it into law, but will have the right to ask the constitutional court to declare it unlawful.

If the bill is amended, Sezer will again have a veto right.

AKP leaders put on a brave face after the presidential rebuff.

"The parliament had displayed its will before. I expect this will to continue," the deputy head of the party's parliamentary group, Haluk Ipek, told Anatolia news agency.

He said the AKP leadership would convene Monday to decide the fate of the reform.

Academics across the country hailed Sezer's decision.

"The principle of secularism is indispensable. You cannot put religion into education," the president of the leading ODTU university in Ankara, Ural Akbulut, told Anatolia.

Sezer also vetoed provisions aimed at enhancing the government's influence in appointments to a board regulating the administration of universities.