Turkish ruling party MP quits over row with cleric

Reuters

ANKARA (Reuters) - A Turkish member of parliament and former international football player quit Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan's ruling party on Monday in protest at a government row with an influential Islamic cleric, local media reported.

Istanbul MP Hakan Sukur, a well-known follower of U.S.-based preacher Fethullah Gulen and his Hizmet movement, said he was personally offended by what he called "hostile moves" against the movement.

"For over 20 years I have known and loved the Hizmet movement," Sukur said in a statement carried by several Turkish news outlets.

"To treat these people who have staunchly supported the government in every issue ... as enemies is at best nothing but ingratitude," the former Galatasaray, Inter Milan and Blackburn Rovers soccer player said.

Sukur's departure from the AK Party is the most tangible fallout yet of a rift between Erdogan and Gulen, whose supporters say they number in the millions.

Erdogan has incensed the movement - whose members hold influential positions in institutions from the police and secret services to the judiciary - with plans to abolish private "prep" schools, many of which are financed and run by Gulenists.

Gulen's schools, which have been set up across Africa, the Middle East, the United States and Asia, are a key source of income but also a powerful instrument of influence, especially in Turkey, creating a network of elite contacts and personal loyalties.

The Hizmet movement has helped Erdogan's Islamist-rooted AK Party win a growing share of the vote in three successive elections over the past decade.

But there have long been ideological differences, with many of Gulen's followers seeing him as a more progressive and pro-Western influence on Turkey than Erdogan, whose views on issues from abortion to alcohol consumption have triggered growing accusations of interference in Turkish private life.

Since he came to power in 2002, Erdogan has built his own body of wealthy loyalists, largely from the same religiously minded professional class that revere Gulen.

The rift between the two sides risks fracturing their support base ahead of local and presidential elections next year.

(Reporting by Humeyra Pamuk; Editing by Nick Tattersall and Sonya Hepinstall)

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