It was the second week of school, and Mehmet Sadik Altin, the local imam, charged up to a lopsided concrete home with a mud roof and demanded to know why the five girls inside weren't in class.

"We don't have money for bread," Meryem Benek shouted at Altin, surrounded by three children wearing torn plastic shoes and worn-out, mud-caked sweaters. "How can I send my girls to school?"

After a half hour of arguing, a team including Altin, a school principal and several teachers persuaded Benek that her daughters needed an education.

Hundreds of teachers are combing city slums and rural villages as part of a massive national campaign to educate an estimated 520,000 Turkish girls who don't go to school.

How well they succeed could hold far-reaching consequences: Turkey just began entry talks with the European Union , and the focus is on issues such as human rights, gender equality and Turkey's need to improve its economy.

The campaign has been largely successful: About 120,000 girls have enrolled since the effort was launched two years ago, including about 20,000 in the eastern city of Van, where Altin, a mosque leader, recruits students door-to-door.

It is also a difficult effort that clashes directly with village traditions dictating that girls don't belong in the classroom.

The national undertaking, called "Hey Girls, Let's Go to School," is also coming face-to-face with the crushing poverty in some areas of Turkey, where the expense of pencils and notebooks is too much for parents who can barely afford food.

In some poor provinces, officials estimate that at least half of girls do not go to school -- despite the fact education is compulsory until the age of 14 in rigidly secular Turkey, a nation of 70 million.

Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his wife, Emine, have repeatedly spoken out in favor of the campaign. Education Minister Huseyin Celik, who is from Van, has told reporters how his brothers went to school but his sisters did not.

Equal education "is not for the E.U. but for Turkey itself," said Fatma Ozdemir Uluc, an education officer with UNICEF. "These girls are our future."

The effort started in 2003 in Van, a poor, mostly Kurdish area bordering Iran, and it has spread to 53 provinces, building up enormous grass-roots support.

A suburb of the capital, Ankara, recently held a bicycle race to benefit the campaign and a mall in Istanbul features booths in support of it. Local businesses are chipping in and large companies have pledged millions. UNICEF has contributed $420,000.

Much of the funding is going toward easing Turkey's school shortage. In one village near Van there is just a two-room school with one teacher for 185 students.

"Our aim is to bring all of the children to school by 2007," said Servet Ozdemir, the Education Ministry's general director for elementary education.

With World Bank help, Turkey is offering the poorest parents $30 a month if they send their girls to school and $21 to send their boys. The money is meant to help pay for school supplies.

A key part of the campaign has been mobilizing imams like Altin -- who under law must be government employees -- to convince conservative Turks that Islam is not against educating girls.

Poor Turks "say a girl can get married when she is 16 so why send her to school?" said Zeki Tanriant, the imam of the Soydan Mosque in central Van. He accompanied Altin when he visited the Benek family.

But Tanriant says that Islam demands that girls be educated.

"Allah's first order to the prophet Muhammad was 'Read!' " Tanriant said. "Allah did not say 'Read boys!' or 'Read girls!' " he explained, sitting in his office in the corner of a mosque.

That view, however, is controversial in many areas. UNICEF officials have privately said that while government imams support the campaign, unofficial religious leaders have tried to undermine it.

The campaign also faces resistance from Kurds who object to teaching in the Turkish language. Turkey does not recognize its 12 million Kurds as a minority and all public school education is in Turkish.

Kurdish guerrillas, who have been battling government forces in the southeast since 1984, once accused teachers of being complicit in a campaign to forcibly integrate Kurds.

When the imam came to her door, Benek spoke Turkish haltingly and immediately switched to Kurdish when she saw that Altin was a Kurd. She agreed to send her girls to school after the recruiting team offered her funds toward supplies.

"I promise my daughters will go to school tomorrow, but if there is no aid, I will pull them out," she said.

In front of a nearby house, Selahattin Yildirim stood on the stoop, smoking.

"Why 'Hey Girls Let's go to School?' " he asked. "It should be 'Hey Boys.' This is immoral. Why force people to send their girls to school?"

Meryem Benek, second from left, who has five daughters, listens to teachers who try to convince her to send her girls to school in the eastern Turkish city of Van, as part of a national campaign called "Hey Girls, Let's Go to School."