SARAJEVO (Reuters) - About 1,000 Turkish students have left home to attend university in Bosnia, attracted by the low cost of living, good food and -- for women -- the right to wear an Islamic headscarf.
On Monday, Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan officially opened a new campus of the International University of Sarajevo (IUS) on the outskirts of the Bosnian capital.
"I hope that a cultural bridge will be created at this university that will connect the people and secure peace in the Balkans," he said at the ribbon-cutting ceremony.
Erdogan heads an Islamist-rooted government and his wife wears a headscarf. However, Turkey remains a secular state and women are forbidden to wear headscarves at university there.
In Bosnia no such ban exists, and this is among the reasons that young Turks give for making the relatively short journey to study at one of Sarajevo's three international universities, two of which are Turkish-funded.
Food and finances, close to the hearts of students everywhere, are important to Sarajevo's Turkish students.
"There are a lot of mosques and the food is delicious," said Enes Cici from Istanbul, an engineering student at the IUS. "It's very similar to our own culture."
Economics student Mehmed Guner from Bursa said: "It is more affordable to study here than going to the United States, Canada or any European country, so this was what made me pick it."
Other reasons are peculiar to Turkey, founded in 1923 from the ashes of the Ottoman Empire which once ruled Bosnia. Turkey's military and judiciary now guard its secularism.
"I came here because of a scarf problem," said architecture student Cahide Nur Cunuk, explaining that she could not enroll at any state or private university in Turkey after graduating from an Islamic theological high school.
"We are happy to be here," added her colleague Vildan Mengi. "Bosnians are Muslims and they are similar to us."
A relatively large proportion of the Turkish students in Sarajevo are women, and most wear headscarves.
They say they cannot enroll at universities in Turkey as they have graduated from theological high schools, the only schools where they could attend classes wearing headscarves.
Many young Turks from religious families attend Islamic secondary schools where 40 percent of the syllabus is devoted to religious subjects, but the rest is for secular topics.
Erdogan was product of this system. A revised system of university credits introduced in the late 1990s has made it hard for pupils of such schools to study non-religious subjects at Turkish universities.
"If the situation in Turkey changed, we would not come to study here," said one woman in a group of headscarved students sitting in a university tea shop. "Bosnian people are more tolerant than Turkish people," she said.
Vildan Mengi said she had three sisters who would also come to Sarajevo if the scarf problem were not resolved. "My mother came to see me here. She saw I am safe," she said.
The IUS is the largest of the three universities that are building what might become the largest complex of private colleges in the region. The other Turkish-funded college is the International Burch University (IBU).
While the IUS was set up by a group of Turkish businessmen and public figures and their Bosnian counterparts, the IBU's founder is the Istanbul-based Foundation of Journalists and Writers, established among others by Turkish preacher Fethullah Gulen.
Followers of Gulen, who has pursued a view that Muslims should not reject modernity but embrace business and the professions, have created a network of private schools and universities across Turkey, the central Asia and the Balkans.
Gulen now lives in self-imposed exile in the United States.
The third university, whose new building in emerging only a few hundred meters away, is the Sarajevo School of Science and Technology, accredited by the British-based Buckingham University.
"This is unique situation to have two Turkish-funded universities in the same area," said IBU Secretary-General Orhan Hadzagic. "This was a pure coincidence," he added, explaining that universities were not linked in any other way.
Bosnia, which like most other Balkan countries had been part of the Ottoman Empire for centuries, has close ties with Turkey. Bosnian Muslims are known as moderate Muslims of Slavic origin, who have turned to the religion in greater numbers only since the 1992-95 war, during which they were the main victims.
Erdogan said at a public debate earlier on Monday: "It does not matter whether we have a shared border or not, I feel this country as the closest neighbor and we will never abandon Bosnia because of our historic responsibility."
The sight of bulldozers and the noise of construction and drilling machines at the foot of nearby Mountain Igman is in stark contrast to many building sites in the capital, where work has stopped since last year because of the recession.
The total investment, estimated roughly at more than 100 million euros ($135 million) once it is completed, would turn Sarajevo into a regional university center and create new revenues for the city, officials say.
"The city of Sarajevo will earn about 35 million euros annually only from the university, which is a large profit," said Alija Rizvanbegovic, one of the founders of the IUS. "We expect that about 600 jobs will be created in the next five years."
(Editing by David Stamp)