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Turkey’s Hagia Sophia and the battle to reconvert it to a mosque |NationalTribune.com

From a symbol of Christendom after its establishment by Byzantine emperor Justinian I in the sixth century, to an emblem of the Muslim Ottoman Empire’s sprawling influence, the Hagia Sophia has been at the heart of a centuries-old ideological and political battle. After Fatih Sultan Mehmed II conquered Constantinople in 1453 and brought the city…

Turkey’s Hagia Sophia and the battle to reconvert it to a mosque |NationalTribune.com

From a symbol of Christendom after its establishment by Byzantine emperor Justinian I in the sixth century, to an emblem of the Muslim Ottoman Empire’s sprawling influence, the Hagia Sophia has been at the heart of a centuries-old ideological and political battle.
After Fatih Sultan Mehmed II conquered Constantinople in 1453 and brought the city – which later became known as Istanbul – into the fold of Islam, he converted the Hagia Sophia from a cathedral to a mosque.
For hundreds of years, Muslim worshippers from around the world flocked to the city’s red-coloured architectural jewel to perform their daily prayers as it stood high with its imposing grey dome and towering minarets.
But in the early 1930s, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the founder of the modern Turkish republic, closed the mosque and turned the building into a museum as part of his drive to secularise and modernise the country.
Calls to reconvert the Hagia Sophia, also known as the Ayasofya, back into a mosque have since been on the rise.
Growing sharper in recent years, the demand came mostly from Turkey’s religious-leaning and nationalist constituencies, many of whom regularly demonstrated at the gates of the Hagia Sophia every May 29, the anniversary of the Ottoman conquest of Constantinople.

But such calls have been vehemently opposed by Greece and the United States, which argue that the heritage site – recognised by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) since 1985 – should remain a museum out of respect for the country’s Christian minority and world history.
‘Aura of legitimacy’
On Thursday, Turkey’s Council of State, the country’s highest court, is set to decide the status of the Hagia Sophia following a petition by a private association to examine the validity of Ataturk’s 1934 decree that converted it into a museum.
Although previous lawsuits to change the status of the museum have failed, lawmakers say a court decision is only symbolic.
“The court’s favourable decision could provide an aura of legitimacy to the museum’s conversion into a mosque, but it is not a prerequisite,” said Aykan Erdemir, senior director of the Turkey Program at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and a former parliamentarian.
The former Turkish lawmaker added that President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s opinion on the matter was, on the other hand, key to the final status of the building.
Ozturk Yilmaz, an independent member of the Turkish parliament and former ambassador, agreed: “This is not a legal matter. If the government wants to change the museum into a mosque, it only requires a presidential decree. The high court’s ruling merely adds legitimacy.”

Greece and the United States argue the UNESCO heritage site should remain a museum out of respect for the country’s Christian minority and country’s history [File: Umit Bektas/Reuters]

Political ploy
Although sympathetic to the cause in his youth, Erdogan has largely remained silent on the public debate over the status of the Hagia Sophia since he came to office 18 years ago. He even reticently opposed the calls on one occasion, telling advocates to fill the Ottoman-built Blue Mosque next door instead.
But since 2019, his rhetoric has changed, with Erdogan publicly endorsing the conversion twice. The first time came right before the March 2019 municipal elections when fears were high that his ruling Justice and Development (AK) Party would lose Istanbul to the opposition’s Ekrem Imamoglu – now the mayor of Turkey’s cultural capital.
Erdogan told his supporters at the time that he planned the conversion in response to US President Donald Trump’s recognition of Israel’s move to make Jerusalem its capital.
Observers saw Erdogan’s recent endorsements as a political ploy to distract attention from the country’s weakening economy, the coronavirus pandemic and his own waning popular support.
The timing of Erdogan’s two calls suggests a strong link between domestic political considerations and the instrumentalisation of Hagia Sophia.
Aykan Erdemir – former Turkish parliamentarian

“The timing of these two calls suggests a strong link between domestic political considerations and the instrumentalisation of Hagia Sophia,” Erdemir told Al Jazeera.
Erdogan appeared on a large screen in the Haiga Sophia to deliver a virtual speech on May 29 as part of the 576th anniversary celebrations of the Ottoman capture of Istanbul.
That same month, he rebuked Greek anger over the potential change in a television interview, saying, “They dare telling us not to transform Haiga Sophia into a mosque. Are you ruling Turkey, or are we?”
Framing the issue as a matter of national sovereignty, advocates have garnered wide support among the majority of Turks, who regardless of their ideological opinions see the status of the building as a purely domestic affair.
“This decision is a national matter. International players should not get involved,” said Yilmaz, who is also a former member of the Turkey’s main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP), which was established as a pro-secular party by Ataturk.
Further kindling national sentiments, Erdogan has reportedly instructed his advisory council to hold the first prayers at the Hagia Sophia on July 15 to commemorate the four-year anniversary of the 2016 failed coup attempt against his own government.

President Erdogan appeared on a large screen in the Haiga Sophia to deliver a virtual speech as part of the 567th anniversary celebrations of the conquest of Istanbul [File: Anadolu]

Not a domestic controversy
For Hamdi Arslan, a Turkish academic and longtime supporter of the cause, Hagia Sophia holds “both religious and symbolic significance,” he told Al Jazeera, while reminiscing over the times he demonstrated alongside Erdogan at its gate in the 1970s.
“For 50 years, I’ve been waiting for the shackles around the Hagia Sophia to be removed and its original identity as a mosque restored. We won’t give up on that,” he said.
According to Galip Dalay, a Tukey specialist and fellow at the Robert Bosch Academy, the potential move has not been controversial domestically, but rather on the international stage.
“The controversy isn’t inside Turkey, but between Ankara and the EU [European Union], Greece or even the US. None of the political parties oppose the idea of opening the Hagia Sophia as a mosque,” said Galip.
“That’s because most parties either support this move or they don’t want to give Erdogan another tool to polarise society because they know the majority of Turks are for it.”

A poll published last month found 73 percent of Turks were in favour of the conversion.
‘Easy targets’
Faik Ozturk, the spokesperson of CHP, Turkey’s main opposition party, warned Erdogan last month against exploiting the move.  
While Turkey’s opposition and religious minority groups have not spoken out strongly against it, Erdemir explained it has been “near impossible for Turkey’s religious minorities and pro-secular constituencies to oppose Hagia Sophia’s conversion publicly since they would become easy targets for accusations of religious and national betrayal”.
He added the potential conversion would damage the image of Turkey “in the eyes of two billion Christians worldwide”, and “alarm Turkey’s religious minorities and pro-secular constituencies”.
Last month, the Greek ministry appealed to UNESCO over the potential decision, claiming such a move would violate international conventions.
Condemnations also came from UNESCO itself and the US ambassador, while Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew, who represents the Orthodox Christian world, said he was “saddened and shaken” by concerns the possible conversion would be a cause of division.
Despite the potential international backlash, Yilmaz, the Turkish lawmaker, said: “It’s time for the reconversion to happen so that this issue can no longer be politically exploited by Erdogan or anyone else.”

Religious controversy hits Istanbul landmark

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COVID-19: US passes ‘unfathomable’ 200,000 death toll |NationalTribune.com

Sorry, we can’t find the page that you are looking for. Don’t let that stop you from visiting some of our other great related content.EXPLORE MOREPalestine quits Arab League role in protest over Israel dealsPalestine was meant to chair Arab League meetings for next six months, but FM Riyad al-Maliki has declined the position.At UN,…

COVID-19: US passes ‘unfathomable’ 200,000 death toll |NationalTribune.com

Sorry, we can’t find the page that you are looking for. Don’t let that stop you from visiting some of our other great related content.EXPLORE MOREPalestine quits Arab League role in protest over Israel dealsPalestine was meant to chair Arab League meetings for next six months, but FM Riyad al-Maliki has declined the position.At UN, Qatar emir questions world inaction on Israeli occupationQatar’s leader says Israel continues to carry out ‘flagrant violation of international resolutions’.Lebanon: Hezbollah arms depot blast caused by ‘technical error’Lebanon’s official news agency said explosion took place in southern village of Ein Qana, about 50km south of Beirut.
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Iran says ‘internal agents’ may be responsible for Natanz blast |NationalTribune.com

Tehran, Iran – The Iranian government said on Tuesday there are strong suspicions that “internal agents” played a role in a massive explosion that occurred at a key nuclear facility earlier this year. On July 2, a fire ripped through a building at Natanz, a major uranium enrichment site. Satellite images showed it caused the…

Iran says ‘internal agents’ may be responsible for Natanz blast |NationalTribune.com

Tehran, Iran – The Iranian government said on Tuesday there are strong suspicions that “internal agents” played a role in a massive explosion that occurred at a key nuclear facility earlier this year.
On July 2, a fire ripped through a building at Natanz, a major uranium enrichment site. Satellite images showed it caused the roof to collapse and parts of the building were blackened by the blaze.
“One of the strong theories is based on internal agents being involved in the incident,” government spokesman Ali Rabiei told reporters at a news conference, according to the Iranian Labour News Agency (ILNA).

“The issue is being seriously reviewed by the country’s security organisations and we will announce the results after things are clear.”
It is the first time an Iranian official specifically pointed to the possibility of an inside job for the blast.
In late August, Iran’s Atomic Energy Organization confirmed the damage to the facility was the result of “sabotage”.
“But how this explosion took place and with what materials … will be announced by security officials in due course,” spokesman Behrouz Kamalvandi said at the time, citing “security reasons” for not disclosing further information.
‘Sabotage is certain’
In early September, Kamalvandi announced Natanz saboteurs “have been identified” but refrained from discussing further details, including whether internal agents were complicit.
On Tuesday, Rabiei also reiterated that “sabotage is certain” but the incident still needs to be investigated due to its complexities.
The desert Natanz site, much of which is underground, is one of several Iranian facilities regularly monitored by inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), the UN nuclear watchdog.
Following the explosion, international media reports indicated Israel may have been behind the attack. Israel has been deliberately vague, neither confirming nor denying involvement while stressing the danger of a nuclear-armed Iran.

“Everyone can suspect us in everything and all the time, but I don’t think that’s correct,” Israeli Defence Minister Benny Gantz said days after the attack.
Foreign Minister Gabi Ashkenazi also said “Iran cannot be allowed to have nuclear capabilities”, adding to that end, “We take actions that are better left unsaid.”
IAEA-Iran relations
September’s announcement that Iran knows the saboteurs behind the Natanz explosion came one week after IAEA Director General Rafael Mariano Grossi visited the country.
The trip was successful, leading to Iran granting access to two suspected former nuclear sites that the UN watchdog wished to inspect.
“In this present context, based on analysis of available information to the IAEA, the IAEA does not have further questions to Iran and further requests for access to locations other than those declared by Iran,” the IAEA and Iranian officials said in a joint statement following the visit.
In a speech during the 64th session of the General Conference of the IAEA on Monday, the president of Iran’s Atomic Energy Organization Ali Akbar Salehi referred to the Natanz incident.

“These malicious acts need to be condemned by the agency and member states,” he said via video conference, adding “Iran reserves its rights to protect its facilities and take necessary actions against any threat as appropriate.”
Salehi also urged the UN watchdog not to compromise its “impartiality, independence and professionalism”.
Iran, UN and the United States are locked in a major disagreement centred around the landmark 2015 nuclear deal signed between Iran and world powers, which US President Donald Trump unilaterally abandoned in May 2018.
The US on Sunday declared it reinstated all UN sanctions on Iran, an announcement that was roundly rejected by the United Nations Security Council as lacking legal basis.
The US is trying to indefinitely extend an arms embargo on Iran that is set to expire in October as part of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), the formal name of the nuclear deal.
Iran, which has always maintained it never pursued nuclear weapons, accepted the nuclear deal that removed all UN sanctions in exchange for curbs on its nuclear programme.
The US reneged on the deal, unilaterally imposing a harsh campaign of sanctions that have hit almost all the productive sectors of the Iranian economy. US sanctions have also targeted Iranian officials and organisations.
In response, starting exactly one year after US sanctions were imposed and other parties failed to guarantee economic benefits promised Iran under the deal, Iran started gradually scaling back its nuclear commitments.

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Palestine quits Arab League role in protest over Israel deals |NationalTribune.com

Palestine was meant to chair Arab League meetings for next six months, but FM Riyad al-Maliki has declined the position.Palestine has quit its current chairmanship of Arab League meetings, the Palestinian foreign minister said on Tuesday, condemning as dishonourable any Arab agreement to establish formal ties with Israel. Palestinians see the deals that the United…

Palestine quits Arab League role in protest over Israel deals |NationalTribune.com

Palestine was meant to chair Arab League meetings for next six months, but FM Riyad al-Maliki has declined the position.Palestine has quit its current chairmanship of Arab League meetings, the Palestinian foreign minister said on Tuesday, condemning as dishonourable any Arab agreement to establish formal ties with Israel.
Palestinians see the deals that the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain signed with Israel in Washington a week ago as a betrayal of their cause and a blow to their quest for an independent state in Israeli-occupied territory.
Earlier this month, the Palestinians failed to persuade the Arab League to condemn nations breaking ranks and normalising relations with Israel.
Palestine was supposed to chair Arab League meetings for the next six months, but Foreign Minister Riyad al-Maliki told a news conference in the occupied West Bank city of Ramallah that it no longer wanted the position.
“Palestine has decided to concede its right to chair the League’s council [of foreign ministers] at its current session. There is no honour in seeing Arabs rush towards normalisation during its presidency,” Maliki said.
In his remarks, he did not specifically name the UAE and Bahrain, Gulf Arab countries that share with Israel concern over Iran. He said Arab League Secretary-General Ahmed Aboul Gheit had been informed of the Palestinian decision.

Palestinians rally against Bahrain-Israel normalisation

The Palestinian leadership wants an independent state based on the de facto borders before the 1967 war, in which Israel occupied the West Bank and the Gaza Strip and annexed East Jerusalem.
Arab countries have long called for Israel’s withdrawal from illegally occupied land, a just solution for Palestinian refugees and a settlement that leads to the establishment of a viable, independent Palestinian state, in exchange for establishing ties with it.
In a new move addressing internal Palestinian divisions, officials from West Bank-based President Mahmoud Abbas’s Fatah faction and the Gaza-based Hamas movement were due to hold reconciliation talks in Turkey on Tuesday.
Hamas seized the Gaza Strip in 2007 from Fatah forces during a brief round of fighting. Differences over power-sharing have delayed implementation of unity deals agreed since then.
Source : Al Jazeera, News Agencies
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