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Turkey’s conservatives tighten grip on schools as imams appointed ‘spiritual counselors’

Pro-secular parties and education unions launch a series of protests after Izmir's Religious Affairs Office, the local branch of Turkey’s powerful Diyanet, assigns imams and preachers to one-third of elementary and secondary schools for spiritual guidance.
A woman walks in a hallway at Sehit Duran primary school in Adana, Turkey, March 18, 2019.

IZMIR, Turkey — A pilot project appointing imams and preachers as “spiritual counselors” to elementary and secondary schools has stirred up a hornet’s nest in the Aegean port city of Izmir, a bastion of Turkey’s pro-secular opposition. 

The project known as CEDES, an acronym for “I protect my environment and claim my values,” has fanned fears that Turkey’s powerful Directorate of Religious Affairs (Diyanet) — emboldened by the electoral victory of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s conservative Justice and Development Party (AKP) in partnership with two radical Islamist partners — would step up efforts to boost its role in the education system.   

Nejla Kurul, president of the teachers’ union Egitim-Sen, expressed her concerns in an interview with CanTV, an independent news outlet. “This is not an innocent project that aims to create awareness about the environment and seeks to provide value-based guidance on everyday issues. It is yet another effort to force the Sunni Islamic lifestyle on children and undermine the secular education system that should be under constitutional protection. Diyanet is forcing its way into education, the domain of Turkey’s Education Ministry, step-by-step,” she said.

The public reaction to the project came after media reports that Izmir's Religious Affairs Office had notified more than 800 elementary and secondary schools — one-third of all the schools within the city borders — that they were assigning imams and preachers for spiritual guidance for students. For the last two weeks, several parents’ associations, left-wing community centers (halkevleri) and opposition parties led by Republican People’s Party (CHP) have staged demonstrations under the banner, “Teachers to schools, Imams to mosques,” in the multifaith city, which predominantly voted for the CHP in the last election.  

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