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Ukraine's 'Red Foxes' cheerleaders a political and religious flashpoint in Turkey

First the Red Foxes dance troupe heated up the World Basketball Championships in Ankara wearing leopard-print hot pants and bras.

Then they covered up with leggings and baggy T-shirts. Finally, during matches played by the host country - Turkey - the dance troupe from Ukraine disappeared altogether.

Although government officials in Turkey say they had nothing to do with the Red Foxes' disappearance, the incident has sparked a controversy over whether scantily clad dancers should be allowed to perform at the tournament during games played by teams from Muslim countries.

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It has also prompted speculation that the Turkish government, which is led by a party with an Islamist past, is trying to impose Muslim values in a country that is constitutionally secular.

"It's crazy," a former member of the Turkish national basketball team who asked not to be named for fear of government retribution told The New York Times. "In a secular country like Turkey, they shouldn't have to do that.'

Although Turkey's people are almost entirely Muslim, the country itself straddles Europe and Asia and has been officially secular since the founding of the Turkish republic in 1923. As a result, tension between secular and Muslim values is a constant theme in the country's politics. Muslim women, for example, recently fought for the right to wear the head scarf at Turkish universities.

The Red Foxes have faced those contradictions since the beginning of the tournament, sponsored by the Fédération Internationale de Basketball, or FIBA. They performed in micro-mini skirts and midriff-baring tops this week at most of the games played by the six teams in Group C at the world championships, including one game played by Turkey.

They have been absent, however, from Turkey's last three games. Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his wife, who wears the head scarf, attended one of those games. Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu was at another.

The dance team's coach, Elena Rozhkova, said her team was pulled for "political" reasons.

A spokesman for Turkey's Sport and Youth Directorate said she knew of no ban on cheerleaders at games played by Turkey. But the speculation is that government authorities asked the Red Foxes not to perform at games attended by officials of the ruling AK Party, which has its roots in political Islam.

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"I think it was planned. It was not coincidence," Nagehan Alci, a columnist for the daily newspaper Aksam, told The New York Times. He added that the AK Party rejects the Islamist label and speculated that the Prime Minister would not be happy with the decision.

"He's a conservative, but he's also a democrat," Ms. Alci said. "It would be harmful if he was involved in limiting people's freedom of expression."

Turkey's rulers were not the only ones to apparently find something objectionable in the Red Foxes. The dance troupe also made what it called "special arrangements" for its performances at games played by Iran.

During a routine at an Iran game early in the tournament, one athletic young dancer pulled her legs through a basketball hoop and, hanging upside down, did the splits. The Iranian political delegation seemed upset by the performance, prompting some in the crowd to stand in front of them and block the dancers from view.

For Wednesday's match between Iran and the United States in Istanbul the dancers put on black leggings and loose-fitting white T-shirts, but Iranian officials stood up and left the arena shortly before the routine started.

Patrick Baumann, FIBA's secretary-general, said the dancers had made the changes out of respect for the Iranians.

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"It is a balance between respecting the culture and making sure basketball delivers all the pace, excitement and entertainment that goes with the world championship," he said. "If it needs a little bit of adjustment, that is fine with us."

But a FIBA statement said the group had nothing to do with any decision to pull the dancers from Turkey's games.

"The dancers will continue to perform at other games in Ankara involving other countries," the statement said. "The dancers bring much fun and joy to fans watching games and help to create a vibrant, happy atmosphere in the arenas."

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