The alumni association for Turkey's Islamic schools said it expected the number of pupils attending the "Imam hatips" to rise to 35,000 this year, from 23,000 last year.

"Registrations are up by 60 to 70% at least," said association chairman, Ibrahim Solmaz on Tuesday.

The provisional figures suggest the renaissance is most pronounced in Istanbul, while the increase in pupil registrations across the rest of the country is less spectacular.

Turnaround

The turnaround comes after a period of decline that began in 1997, when Turkey's secularist military removed the country's first Islamist government, led by Necmettin Erbakan.

The number of children attending Islamic schools - which reached 600,000 under the Erbakan government - began a steady decline that led to the closure of a quarter of the country's 600 Imam hatips.

But at the Acibadem school in Istanbul, parents estimated the number of girls attending the Imam hatip had doubled since last year.

The school made the headlines last year when, under the secularist government of former prime minister Bulent Ecevit, several dozen of its pupils were expelled for wearing Islamic headscarves.

Secularism

"It's not surprising that we're seeing such a rush... The promises made by Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan have brightened up these children's horizons"

Musa Gumus,
Parent

However, the playground was once again full of headscarf-clad girls as the school prepared for its traditional tribute to the secularist founder of the modern Turkish state, Kamal Ataturk.

Musa Gumus, the father of one of the girls expelled last year, said much had changed since the November election victory by the Justice and Development Party, which portrays itself as a moderate grouping with Islamist roots.

"It's not surprising that we're seeing such a rush," said Gumus, whose daughter is now back at the school for her final year.

"The promises made by Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan have brightened up these children's horizons."

Another father said his daughter planned to study pharmacy "while at the same time learning more about her religion".

Headscarves

Headscarves are now tolerated in Turkish schools, but remain outlawed in universities and other public institutions - a ban that Erdogan has so far shied away from tackling.

However, the prime minister last week vowed to abolish discriminatory university admission rules that slash entrance exam results for applicants from so-called "professional schools" - which includes the Imam hatips.

The handicap mainly affects girls, who account for 95% of pupils at religious schools, while boys are far more likely to be sent to secular establishments to preserve their chances of entering higher education.