Turkey should have a new religious-based constitution which does not contain the principle of secularism, and the country should be defined as an Islamic nation, the speaker of parliament has said.

The comments come amid an existing debate in Turkey over changes to the constitution, meant to empower the presidency, currently held by Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Turkey, a NATO member, is also making a renewed push to join the European Union.

Speaking late on Monday, Ismail Kahraman, from the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), noted that Turkey, an overwhelmingly Muslim nation, observes religious holidays as official days off and has state institutions that support the faith.

"We are an Islamic nation. Therefore, we should create a religious constitution," he was quoted as saying by the state-run news agency Anadolu. He outright rejected the idea that the principle of secularism should be contained in the new constitution.

President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and the AKP, a conservative party with Islamic roots, have been pushing for a new constitution for Turkey. The existing constitution came out of the 1980 military coup.

The head of the AKP's constitutional committee in parliament, Mustafa Sentop, responded to the speaker's remarks by saying the party never discussed changing secularism.

He added that Kahraman "is not speaking on behalf of any party."

Secularism has been a defining characteristic of modern Turkey, founded in 1923 by Mustafa Kemal Ataturk. The concept is mentioned repeatedly in the constitution.

The current constitution contains, as part of its core four articles: "The Republic of Turkey is a democratic, secular and social state governed by rule of law." This article is legally considered irrevocable.

Secularists in Turkey have taken to social media to voice upset.The leader of the main opposition People's Republic Party (CHP), which was founded by Ataturk, also condemned the remarks.

"Secularism exists so that everyone can have religious freedom," Kemal Kilicdaroglu tweeted, adding that the principle ensured "social peace." He warned that the Middle East's multiple crises are often rooted in religious disputes and warned against abusing religion.

Kahraman was once a member of the Welfare Party (Refah) which was banned in 1998 by the Constitutional Court for violating secularism. Key original members of the AKP, including Erdogan, were formerly in Refah.

Critics, including from the CHP, often accuse the government of infringing on democratic freedoms. Abroad, there is growing concern about freedom of speech in Turkey. The government says Turkey has one of the freest media landscapes in the world.

Deputy Prime Minister Mehmet Simsek this week said Turkey has set obtaining full EU membership as its top strategic target.

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