Turks hit streets over fears of pro-Islamic government

Hundreds of thousands of pro-secular Turks flooded Istanbul on Sunday to demand the resignation of the government, which they fear is leading Turkey toward Islamic rule.

Hundreds of thousands of Turks flooded central Istanbul on Sunday to demand the resignation of the government, which they fear is leading Turkey toward Islamic rule.

The demonstrators, who numbered at least 300,000, according to police —and up to onemillion, according to local media —took to the streets following a sharp rise in tension between Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan's government and the country's powerful pro-secular military.

The military accuses the government of tolerating or encouraging the activities of radical Islamic circles.

"Turkey is secular and will remain so," shouted one of the thousands of flag-waving protesters, many of whom travelled to Istanbul from across the country overnight.

The demonstrators sang nationalist songs and demanded the resignation of the government, calling Erdogan a traitor.

Most of the protesters were strongly supportive of the army, which said on Friday that it remained "the absolute defender of secularism."

"The Turkish Army is the founder of the republic so they have a right to talk. We trust the army 'til the end," one protester told AP Television.

It was the second large anti-government demonstration in two weeks.

More than 300,000 secular Turks staged a similar rally in Ankara two weeks ago.

Aerial television footage on Sunday showed a sea of red flags in the packed meeting area in Caglayan district, which was cordoned off by police.

Small girls wore red headbands that read "We are following your footsteps," in reference to the founder of the modern republic, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk.

Artists perform

Various artists and powerful media figures were invited to speak or perform on stage, among them rock groups,including Bulutsuzluk Ozlemi, and television executive Tuncay Ozkan.

The rally was organized more than a week ago and follows a parliamentary presidential vote on Friday and comments from the military voicing concern over government conduct.

The ruling party's candidate for president, Foreign Minister Abdullah Gul, failed to win a first-round victory in the vote, but said on Sunday he would not withdraw his bid.

Most opposition legislators had boycotted the vote and challenged its validity in the Constitutional Court.

Military makes itself heard

The military has indicated it was willing to become more openly involved in the voting process — a statement some interpreted as an ultimatum to the government to rein in officials who promote Islamic initiatives.

Starting in 1923 in the ruins of the Ottoman Empire, Ataturk, a soldier, set about a series of secular reforms that imposed Western laws, replaced Arabic script with the Latin alphabet, banned Islamic dress and granted women the right to vote.

However, the ruling party has supported religious schools and tried to lift the ban on Islamic head scarves in public offices and schools.

Secularists are also uncomfortable with the idea of Gul's wife, Hayrunisa, being in the presidential palace because she wears the traditional Muslim headscarf.

The military, one of the most respected institutions in Turkey, regards itself as the guardian of the secular system and has staged three coups since 1960.