The death of a 10-year-old girl who contracted rabies after being bitten by a dog in Istanbul has touched off a passionate debate in Turkey over what to do about the city's exploding stray animal population.

Erol Cakir, the governor of Istanbul province, has warned that the country's largest city is facing a "potential rabies epidemic" in the aftermath of the Dec. 27 death of Serpil Ozbek, who was bitten as she went to her primary school's outdoor lavatory in Istanbul's Kayisdagi neighborhood.

In recent months, more than 60 neighborhoods in the city of 10 million have been put under quarantine. And in 1999, at least 19,000 residents were reported to have been attacked by stray dogs.

"It is truly shameful that people should be dying of rabies in Istanbul," Cakir said amid growing calls for the destruction of the city's stray dog population, which some estimates say has grown to at least 100,000.

Animal rights activists oppose calls for putting down the dogs. But on another level, the debate mirrors the sharp divisions between this predominantly Muslim but officially secular nation's Western-oriented elite and religious conservatives who revile dog ownership as "un-Islamic." Orthodox Muslim teaching says dogs are dirty and should not be allowed inside homes.

Istanbul's stray dog problem dates from the early 20th century when Turkey was still ruled by the Ottomans. The animals were rounded up and put on boats that carried them to a small island in the Sea of Marmara, where they were left to die. But after a devastating fire in the early 1900s, a feeling ran among city residents that they had been punished for exiling the dogs, and that practice was ended and the dogs were brought back from the island and freed.

Today, animal rights activists charge that state health workers, using poisoned darts and meat laced with strychnine, have embarked on "a massive genocide" of stray canines. "The worst slaughter is going on in municipalities run by [the Islam-based] Virtue party," said Pinar Kaftancioglu, a spokeswoman for an animal protection league in the Aegean resort of Kusadasi.

Municipalities and state workers deny the charges, although television footage has shown corpses of dogs, and one animal rights activist, Yildiz Dinc, said that 51 dogs and a donkey were poisoned in December. "Ordinary citizens wouldn't have access to strychnine . . . only municipalities would," Dinc said.

Under pressure from animal rights groups, the Turkish government in November signed the European convention on the protection of animals. One group is also threatening to launch a campaign to encourage Western tourists to boycott Turkey to deter authorities from killing the dogs.

Dog ownership became fashionable among urban, middle-class Turks in the wake of the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 and the ensuing influx of Russian traders. Their wares included thoroughbred collies, Dalmatians and other popular breeds, which they sold for as little as $5 each.

Bekir Coskun, a popular columnist in the Hurriyet newspaper, is at the forefront of the campaign for a program to inoculate the strays and open more shelters to house them. This is the "only logical formula for a country that claims to be European and wants to become a full member of the European Union," Coskun said in an interview.

The newspaper Sabah, which is close to Turkey's rigidly pro-secular military establishment, took the opposite view and exhorted its readers in banner headlines not to "allow the dogs to snatch your tax money."

Illustrated by a huge picture of a vicious-looking Doberman pinscher with bared fangs, the full-page article said it would cost tens of millions of dollars to follow Coskun's advice. The article offered graphic descriptions of the stages of rabies.

"If everyone in this country is so concerned about children," Coskun said in response to the Sabah article, "why don't they speak up when they are tortured and tried in court for so-called political crimes?"