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Thursday, May 6, 1999 Published at 21:07 GMT 22:07 UK

World: Europe

Headscarf claims political scalp

Turkish MPs jeer Merve Kavakci (bottom right) on Sunday

A leading member of Turkey's pro-Islamist Virtue Party has resigned in a growing row over the wearing of a banned Muslim headscarf.

Party chairman Aydin Menderes said he felt the party was bent on self-destruction over the issue.

Ankara Correspondent Chris Morris: "Dispute may push Virtue Party over the edge"
And speculation is mounting that the party - third biggest in parliament - may be closed down because of the religious row in officially secular Turkey.

Turkey regards the wearing of the Muslim headscarf as a political, pro-Islamic statement and has banned them in public institutions.

Merve Kavakci, a newly-elected woman Virtue Party deputy, re-ignited debate over the place Islam holds in Turkey when she wore the Muslim headscarf in parliament.

She and her party leader, Recai Kutan, have refused to back down.

Dividing the country

Announcing his resignation, Mr Menderes said both sides of the political and religious fence were using the issue to divide the country.

He said: "If I thought Virtue could take a fresh and wiser path I would have continued my job.

"The party does not share my concerns. This is a deep rooted difference of opinion."

Mr Menderes, the son of a former prime minister, was seen as a moderate voice in the Virtue Party.

Party faces investigation

[ image: Defiant: Merve Kavakci]
Defiant: Merve Kavakci
Prosecutors are examining whether Merve Kavakci's actions amount to incitement to racial or religious hatred.

The party was already facing allegations that it was a continuation of the banned Welfare Party, which was shut down at the beginning of last year for violating the country's secular principles.

Sources within the Virtue Party say they fear the authorities may now shut it down.

But party leader Recai Kutan was publicly brushing aside such worries.

He said: "Parties are opened or closed by people in democratic countries not by the judiciary. I do not think such a step [to ban the party] will be taken."

Facing flak

Angry MPs forced Merve Kavakci to leave the parliament building on Sunday before she could take her oath of office.

Since then the issue has dominated Turkey, with newspapers probing her past.

The mainstream media has launched personal attacks against the deputy.

Their reports say that in the past she has called for an Islamic holy war in Turkey and opposed Turkish plans to join the European Union because it is composed of mainly Christian nations.

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