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Turkish Army boss warns extremists

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(CNN) -- The Turkish Army's chief of staff Monday warned against politicizing religion in his country and cautioned that the army would "take sides" to preserve the secular nature of the government.

Gen. Ilker Basbug, speaking to officer trainees at the Army Military Academy in Ankara, said that "Islamist extremism is reaching worrisome levels."

"Our society is being pushed into religious congregations and sects, and such congregations and sects are becoming the source of anti-revolution (anti-republic) activities," he said.

The Turkish military has long seen itself as protector of the country's secular nature, and generals have led three coups against the government, including in 1997 when a coup ousted a government the military deemed too extremist.

"As it would be remembered, the main goal of the Turkish revolution was to create a secular state, and I did mention the role of a secular state is the strengthening source in developing a modern state," Basbug said.

"Secularism is the fundamental cornerstone of all values that formed the Turkish Republic."

The Turkish military had always "taken sides" to back secularism, he said, and would again if that became necessary.

"Naturally, we must be respectful and careful towards our citizens who are devout," he added. "However, if religion is moved outside of the belief system and becomes an ideology, this would politicize the religion. The most harm in this situation would come to the religion itself."

Faruk Celik, a spokesman for the Islamist-based government of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, tersely responded.

"If there is a threat to the Turkish state," he said, "the government will be there to face it."

Haluk Koc, spokesman for the opposition Republican People's Party, was hopeful Basbug's threat to take sides would be unnecessary.

"Democracy will find a solution," he said.

Turkey's General Ilker Basbug.

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