Turkey: New constitution will guarantee religious freedom, PM says

Turkey's constitution will retain the principle of secularism, Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu said on Wednesday, following public uproar after a top politician called for a Muslim constitution.

Turkey's secular and democratic character was "not up for debate", Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu said.Reuters

In a speech to members of his ruling AK Party, Davutoglu said the government would guarantee religious freedom and seek a "liberal interpretation" of secularism, rather than an "authoritarian" one.

"In the new constitution which we are preparing, the principle of secularism will be included as one guaranteeing individuals' freedom of religion and faith, and the state's equal distance to all faith groups," he added, noting that Turkey's secular and democratic character was "not up for debate".

Parliamentary speaker Ismail Kahraman, who is overseeing the draft charter, said on Monday that overwhelmingly Muslim Turkey needed a religious constitution, a proposal at odds with the modern republic's founding principles.

"We are a Muslim country... Secularism cannot feature in the new constitution," he said.

His comments resulted in condemnation from the opposition and provoked a brief street protest, highlighting the schism in Turkish society reaching back to the 1920s when Mustafa Kemal Ataturk forged a secular republic and banished Islam from public life.

Kahraman later said his comments were "personal views" and that the new constitution should guarantee religious freedoms.

President Tayyip Erdogan and the ruling AK Party he founded, which is rooted in political Islam, have tried to restore the role of religion in public life. They have expanded religious education and allowed the head scarf, once banned from state offices, to be worn in colleges and parliament.

The headscarf ban, widely seen by the millions of pious Turks who back the AKP as an authoritarian stricture, was overturned by the ruling party in 2013.

The AKP is pushing to replace the existing constitution, which dates back to the period after a 1980 military coup. As speaker, Kahraman is overseeing efforts to draft a new text.

Additional reporting by Reuters