ANKARA (Reuters) - Turkey’s parliament began debating on Saturday constitutional changes aimed at lifting a ban on women students wearing the Muslim headscarf in universities, but protesters said the reforms would undermine the secular state.
Parliament, where the ruling Islamist-rooted AK Party has a big majority, approved the first of two articles to be changed and was due to endorse the whole package of amendments later in the day.
Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan’s government has won the support of a key nationalist party, the MHP, to push through the reforms, which it has portrayed as an issue of religious and individual freedom.
But Turkey’s secular elite, which includes the judiciary, university rectors and army generals, view the headscarf ban as a pillar of the separation of state and religion in the overwhelmingly Muslim country.
Tens of thousands of protesters demonstrated a few km (miles) from the parliament in Ankara on Saturday against the changes in the second anti-headscarf rally to be held in the Turkish capital in just a week.
“We are against lifting this ban, we do not want to live in a religious state,” said Ebru Okay, 32, who had traveled from the Aegean city of Izmir to join Saturday’s rally in Ankara. “The state and religion must remain separate.”
Secularists fear the changes will push Turkey away from Europe and turn it into a more Middle Eastern-style country.
Reporting by Gareth Jones; editing by Sami Aboudi