Top Turkey cleric under fire over $500,000 luxury Mercedes paid for by taxpayers: Reports

Turkey's top cleric Mehmet Gormez (right) meeting Pope Francis in Ankara, Turkey, on Nov 28, 2014. The Pope, who has made a point of eschewing luxury, opted to ride in a Renault Symbol during his visit to Turkey. -- PHOTO: AFP
Turkey's top cleric Mehmet Gormez (right) meeting Pope Francis in Ankara, Turkey, on Nov 28, 2014. The Pope, who has made a point of eschewing luxury, opted to ride in a Renault Symbol during his visit to Turkey. -- PHOTO: AFP

ISTANBUL (AFP) - Turkey's top cleric came under fire on Saturday over reports that a luxury Mercedes had been purchased at public expense to serve as his official car - the latest government splurge to cause a public outcry.

Mehmet Gormez, the head of Turkey's Religious Affairs Directorate, known as Diyanet in Turkish, will soon be cruising in a Mercedes s500, worth some €350,000 (S$570,000), the Hurriyet newspaper reported Saturday.

Diyanet, whose budget is funded by taxpayers, bought another 14 Toyota cars for its senior officials, the newspaper said, noting that they previously rode in the more modest Renault Symbol.

The purchases have caused an online outcry in the mainly Muslim but officially secular country, which has been run by a government with Islamist roots for more than a decade.

Many argued that such extravagance was against Islamic principles.

"Let's call the Fatwa (religious ruling) hotline and ask: Isn't it haram - forbidden by Islam - to buy a luxury car for the head of Diyanet by using citizens' donations?" Hakan Sukur, former international football player and MP, wrote on Twitter.

"One never knows who might have money or who might have faith in God," opposition lawmaker Erdal Aksunger wrote, using a Turkish proverb.

Another MP called on Gormez to resign.

Diyanet did not deny the reports, but said in a statement that the cars had been bought through state tenders and the cost was less than estimated by the press.

"All vehicles have been purchased with the approval of the finance ministry... All expenses are documented in a transparent way," it added.

Gormez was among top Turkish figures who welcomed Pope Francis to Turkey late last month. The Pope, who has made a point of eschewing luxury, opted to ride in a Renault Symbol during his visit.

The debate comes amid ongoing controversy over President Recep Tayyip Erdogan's new presidential palace, a 1,150-room complex in Ankara that cost taxpayers more than US$600 million.