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The BBC's Chris Morris
"Most Turks do not want to mix their religion with their politics"
 real 28k

Thursday, 9 March, 2000, 13:12 GMT
Turks debate virtue of Islamist party
Turkey is a largely Muslim country
Turkey is a largely Muslim, but secular, country
By Chris Morris in Ankara

The fate of Turkey's pro-Islamist Virtue Party will be one important yardstick for the European Union as it considers possible Turkish membership.

The EU wants further progress on human rights before formal negotiations begin, and the party is facing a legal challenge which could close it down.

Turks pray at the Kocatepe Mosque in Ankara
Turks pray at the Kocatepe Mosque in Ankara
Virtue is the largest opposition party in parliament, but its opponents say that it is a centre of fundamentalist activity and a threat to the constitutional order.

At the Kocatepe Mosque in Ankara, the faithful come to pray, but most Turks do not want to mix their religion with politics.

Secular state

In this overwhelmingly Muslim country, support for secular political parties remains strong.


Islam and democracy hand in hand is never trusted by the military

Hasan Koni, Ankara University
However, there are demands for change from those who believe the system is too strict.

The establishment, especially the influential Turkish military, is undaunted.

As Hasan Koni of Ankara University notes, the Turkish military still regards any form of political Islam as a potential threat.

"Islam and democracy hand in hand is never trusted by the military. They need reform," he says.

During a harsh Turkish winter, the debate over political Islam has become even more intense.

Hezbollah

The discovery of dozens of bodies belonging to the victims of the radical Islamic group, Turkish Hezbollah, has shocked the nation.

Victim of Turkish Hizbollah is carried away
Hezbollah victim is carried away
Human remains have been recovered across the country.

It is a terribly murky affair. There are strong suggestions of links between Hezbollah and elements within the state as well as allegations that the group has been financed by Iran, and attempts to smear all form of political Islam with the same brush.

Abdullah Gul of the Virtue party denies any connection to his party.

"99% of those were killed, they are our supporters," he says.

"So there's no link. We have a very large potential in this country, very large proportion of these they support us. They share our opinion."

President Suleyman Demirel
Virtue support may be needed to re-elect President Suleyman Demirel
However, the chief prosecutor of the constitutional court is not one of them.

He believes the Virtue party poses a clear and present danger to the state.

He helped shut down Virtue's predecessor, the Welfare party, two years ago.

Now he wants to do the same again but this time it may not be so easy.

The government hopes parliament will re-elect Suleyman Demirel as the president of Turkey.

In return for Virtue party support a deal could emerge which would make it harder to shut political parties down.

Rocky road to Europe

Whatever happens, Hasan Koni says that the military will remain vigilant.



"The armed pressure will be on the Virtue party for a time to come," he says.

"It will take a long time and our road to Europe is full of bounces and stones, but the way will continue to get into Europe."

It is always a danger to take anything in Turkey's volatile politics for granted.

However, closing down the largest opposition party in parliament is not something which would sit well with the country's EU candidacy.

It is not just the Virtue Party which is facing a closure case this year. The country's main Kurdish party, Hadep, is also under threat.

Some will want both parties to be banned but others believe Turkey must now find a way to accommodate a broader spectrum of political views. Europe will be watching closely.

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