ISTANBUL (AP) — When President Obama visited Turkey last year, he paused to stroke a tabby cat at the former Byzantine church of Haghia Sophia while Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan looked on with a smile. The cat, one of half a dozen living at the ancient site, seemed unfazed by the VIP attention.

Many a visitor has noted the abundance of stray cats in the old imperial capital of Istanbul. They amble and lounge around some mosques and have the run of a couple of universities. Facebook campaigns gather supplies for them, and it's easy to spot nibbles and plastic containers of water left discreetly on sidewalks for the felines.

This month, cats will get a publicity boost when the world basketball championships begin in Istanbul and three other Turkish cities. The official mascot is "Bascat," a white cat with one blue eye and one green eye, similar to an unusual breed native to the eastern city of Van.

The special status of stray cats in Istanbul and elsewhere in Turkey reflects a tradition-bound country on the path to modernity. It partly derives from Muslim ideas about tolerance, and an urban elite with Western-style ideas about animal rights. It points to the freewheeling side of a society that seeks entry into the European Union's world of regulation.

Sevgin Akis Roney, an economics professor at Istanbul's Bosphorus University, said the school is so well-known for adopting strays that people leave unwanted cats there, knowing they'll get fed. Cats wander freely into classrooms at the school, perched on a hill over the strait that separates the Asian and European continents.

"We should learn to live with these animals," said Roney, who walks around with cat food for hungry strays.

Turkey introduced an animal protection law in 2004, and state policy is to catch, neuter and release or find a home for street animals. Funds for such projects are limited. Alleged poisoning campaigns by some municipalities, usually targeting dogs, suggest laws are sometimes flouted altogether.

Stray dogs are considered more of a nuisance and sanitation threat than cats, and Islamic tradition — while espousing tolerance for all creatures — labels them unclean. In 1910, Istanbul officials unloaded tens of thousands of stray dogs on an island in the Sea of Marmara, where they starved.

Istanbul experienced an explosion of uncontrolled growth in the second half of the 20th century. Millions of people flooded from the countryside, cramming into cheap, illegal housing called "gecekondu," which means "built overnight" in Turkish. Highways and shopping malls sprouted. That urban sprawl made Istanbul less hospitable for street cats, but pockets of the city kept the tradition of caring for strays — an easy option for Turks who don't want the hassle of a pet at home.

Cats benefit from their association with Islam in Turkey, where the population is mostly Muslim though the laws and political system are secular. A popular saying goes: "If you've killed a cat, you need to build a mosque to be forgiven by God."

Islamic lore tells of a cat thwarting a poisonous snake that had approached the Prophet Muhammad. In another tale, the prophet found his cat sleeping on the edge of his vest. Instead of shifting the cat, the prophet cut off the portion of the vest that was free and wore it without disturbing the pet.

Nukhet Barlas, an environmental consultant, photographed cats for an online exhibition backed by the European Capital of Culture project, which focused on Istanbul this year. Her images show cats posing in front of mosques, ruins and iconic buildings, ceramics and the shoreline.

"Most of these strays have developed friendly relationships with people. They have personalities and in many neighborhoods, they are almost part of the community," Barlas wrote in an email.

On her strolls, Barlas photographed long-haired Angora cats and "chalk-white/blue-eyed" Van mixes as well as non-Turkish breeds resembling Abyssinian or Egyptian Mau cats. She believes the variety stems from Istanbul's role as capital of the continent-spanning Ottoman Empire and a transit point for trade over the centuries. "New breeds appear to continue," she said. "I find stray cats that look like the popular British Shorthair, or Balinese."

One tourist hostel in Istanbul is called the Stray Cat. At the Kaktus Cafe in Istanbul's Cihangir district, cats sit next to customers or doze on the chairs. Cat images decorate dishes and tablecloths.

"Cats are lazy anarchists," said Ozgur Kantemir, who has eight cats and lives in Ankara, the Turkish capital. "This might be one reason why they conform with us just fine in big cities."

While cats seep into the culture, they're not always welcome. The yowls and whoops of cats in combat disturb the sleep of quite a few urban dwellers.

"If you're on the ground floor and leave your window open, you can come home to a cat looking up to you, asking 'What are you doing here?'" joked Allen Collinsworth, an American business consultant.

In 2004, Erdogan sued a cartoonist for Cumhuriyet newspaper after he depicted the prime minister as a cat entangled in yarn representing Islamic vocational schools that Erdogan backed. The image went to the heart of hostility between fiercely secular elites and Erdogan's Islamic-oriented government that has since shaped Turkey's political debate.

Istanbul's bounty of stray cats amazed Sir Evelyn Wrench, a former editor of Britain's The Spectator magazine who wrote in 1935 that Turks thought drowning kitten litters was cruel, so they dropped them in the "dustheap" instead.

"In every side street you meet the cats, old and emaciated cats, cats with one eye blind, kittens toddling with unsteady step, cats with skin diseases, cats eternally scratching themselves, dying cats run over by cars on the roadside, Wrench wrote. "When I asked residents in Istanbul what could be done about the cats, they shrugged their shoulders. 'Istanbul was menaced in its old wooden houses by a plague of rats; cats were necessary.'"


Associated Press Writer Ceren Kumova contributed to this report from Ankara, Turkey.