Secular Turks opposed to President Recep Tayyip Erdogan on Friday boycotted schools and took to the streets to demand a secular education and denounce a claimed creeping Islamization of the schools system.
The protests were led by Turkey's largest religious minority the Alevis, who adhere to an offshoot of Shiite Islam, as well as leading education union Egitim Sen, according to the AFP news agency.
It was not immediately clear how many pupils had failed to attend schools due to the boycott but Turkish media reports said it was followed in cities including Istanbul, Ankara, Izmir, Edirne, and Antalya.
Television pictures showed that police had used water cannon to roughly disperse a protest in the Aegean city of Izmir. Fifty-six people were arrested, according to NTV television.
Police used tear gas to disperse scores of protestors demonstrating in Ankara, AFP reported. There were also protests in Istanbul.
Secular Turks and Alevis in particular have been angered by the compulsory religion lessons used in schools under a system that has been amended by Erdogan’s ruling Islamic-rooted Justice and Development Party (AKP).
Alevis are upset that the compulsory classes prioritize Sunni Islam, the dominant religion of Turkey which is practiced by almost all the current ruling elite.
Alevis have traditionally been champions of secularity in Turkey, believing it to be the best way to protect their own rights in the majority Sunni Muslim country.
Indeed, throughout Erdogan’s time in power there have been more signs of Turkey turning more extremist. In 2013, the Turkish Parliament tightened restrictions on the sale and advertising of alcoholic beverages and has charged individuals with insulting Islamic religious values over comments made on social media.
In December, Erdogan vowed to make lessons in the Arabic-alphabet Ottoman language compulsory in high schools, despite objections from secularists.
Thousands of Alevis had rallied last weekend in Istanbul in a mass rally demanding more rights for their community, AFP reported.
Alevis are by far Turkey's largest religious minority, estimated to form between 10-20 percent of the population, but are not recognized by the state as an official group.
Only Jewish or Christian children in Turkey can be excused from the religious education classes.
Many activists have been angered by the interventions of the AKP in the Turkish education system, which they allege have undermined the country's secular system founded by Mustafa Kemal Ataturk.
(Arutz Sheva’s North American desk is keeping you updated until the start of Shabbat in New York. The time posted automatically on all Arutz Sheva articles, however, is Israeli time.)