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Riot police use tear gas to disperse demonstrators during a protest against parliament speaker Ismail Kahraman, outside the Turkish parliament in Ankara, Turkey April 26, 2016. REUTERS/Stringe

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By Ayla Jean Yackley and Ercan Gurses

ISTANBUL/ANKARA (Reuters) - A call by Turkey's parliament speaker for a new constitution to drop references to secularism provoked opposition condemnation and a brief street protest on Tuesday, potentially undermining government efforts to forge agreement on a new charter.

Speaker Ismail Kahraman said late on Monday that overwhelmingly Muslim Turkey needed a religious constitution, a proposal which contradicts the modern republic's founding principles. He later said his comments were "personal views" and that the new constitution should guarantee religious freedoms.

His comments and the reaction highlight a schism in Turkish society reaching back to the 1920s when Mustafa Kemal Ataturk forged a secular republic from the ruins of an Ottoman theocracy. He banished Islam from public life, replaced Arabic with Latin script and promoted Western dress and women's rights.

President Tayyip Erdogan and the ruling AK Party he founded, their roots 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 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.

"For one thing, the new constitution should not have secularism," Kahraman said, according to videos of his speech published by Turkish media. "It needs to discuss religion ... It should not be irreligious, this new constitution, it should be a religious constitution."

On Tuesday, he sought to clarify his remarks. The notion of secularism had been used in Turkey to limit freedoms, Kahraman said in a statement, and a clearer definition "that does not bring the state and the people against each other" should be included in the new constitution.

In his first public reaction to Kahraman's comments, Erdogan said on Tuesday that the speaker had been expressing his own views and the president defended Turkey's secular order.

"My views are known on this ... The reality is that the state should have an equal distance from all religious faiths ... This is laicism," Erdogan said in televised comments during a visit to the Croatian capital Zagreb.

FEARS

Critics fear a new charter could concentrate too much power in the hands of Erdogan, who wants an executive presidency to replace the current parliamentary system. The government has promised that European standards on human rights will form the basis of the new text.

Mustafa Sentop, a senior AKP member who heads a parliamentary commission on constitutional reform, said a draft text retained the precept of secularism and his party had not even discussed removing it.

But Kahraman's comments drew criticism from government opponents suspicious of the ruling party's Islamist ideals.

Kemal Kilicdaroglu, head of the main opposition and secularist Republican People's Party (CHP), tweeted: "Secularism is the primary principle of social peace ... Secularism is there to ensure that everyone has religious freedom, Ismail Kahraman!"

Ankara police used pepper spray to disperse about 50 demonstrators, including some CHP lawmakers, who gathered outside parliament. Dozens of people were detained.

NATO member Turkey, which aspires to join the European Union, has long been touted by its Western partners as a model secular, democratic nation with a majority Muslim population.

Erdogan's fervent supporters see him as a champion of the pious working class, resetting the balance of power in a country dominated by a secular elite for much of the last century. Erdogan, Turkey's most influential leader since Ataturk, won almost 52 percent of the vote in an August 2014 presidential election.

The AKP holds 317 of the 550 seats in parliament and would need 330 votes to submit its draft constitution to a referendum. This means it must win over lawmakers from other parties, a campaign which Kahraman's comments could risk undermining.

"These statements are going to complicate efforts towards a new constitution," a senior AKP official told Reuters. "We will have to convey very clearly to the public that such an approach is not being considered. But frankly, after yesterday's statement, it is not going to be easy."

Kahraman said the current charter was already religious because it declared Islamic holidays as public holidays, even if fails to cite "Allah" once.

Turkey amended its original 1924 constitution four years later to drop Islam as the official religion of the state. Historians consider that measure the basis of the modern, democratic and secular Turkish Republic. The current constitution does not promote any official religion.

Turkey is overwhelmingly Sunni Muslim, but a fifth of its 78 million people is estimated to be Alevi, which draws from Shi'a, Sufi and Anatolian folk traditions. Turkey is also home to about 100,000 Christians and 17,000 Jews.

A Pew survey from 2013 showed 12 percent of Turks want Sharia, a legal framework regulated by the tenets of Islam, to be official law.

(Additional reporting by Orhan Coskun in Ankara, Igor Ilic in Zagreb and Seda Sezer in Istanbul; Editing by Nick Tattersall, John Stonestreet and David Stamp)

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