Hagia Sophia is Erdogan’s latest political battleground

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Transforming the Hagia Sophia into a museum was a key reform of the post-Ottoman Turkish authorities under the modern republic’s founder Mustafa Kemal Ataturk. (AFP)
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This aerial picture taken on April 25, 2020 shows the Hagia Sophia museum in Istanbul. (AFP)
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People visit Hagia Sophia museum on June 26, 2020 in Istanbul. (AFP)
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Updated 03 July 2020

Hagia Sophia is Erdogan’s latest political battleground

  • Hagia Sophia has been a museum since 1935
  • It was first constructed as a church in the Christian Byzantine Empire

ANKARA: Turkey’s highest administrative body on Thursday delayed its decision about the fate of the Hagia Sophia, the 1,500-year-old cathedral and UNESCO World Heritage site that could be converted into a mosque.

The Council of State will make its ruling within 15 days to decide whether the Byzantine-era monument and tourist hotspot should be converted from a museum into a place for Muslim worship.
The move has been criticized as a tactic to mobilize the religious and conservative voters of the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), although debates about the building’s status was a hot topic during AKP election rallies last year. Leaders and constituencies called for its conversion, despite opposition from secular parties and the international community.
Religious services have been banned in the Hagia Sophia since 1934. It was built in the sixth century by the Byzantine Emperor Justinian and has been visited by four popes.
Although Ankara has uneasy relationships with many Western governments, such an ideologically motivated decision about an asset that carries global political and religious meaning is likely to cause a deterioration in relations with key countries, especially the US and Greece.
Greek Culture Minister Lina Mendoni recently accused Turkey of refreshing “fanatical nationalist and religious sentiment,” while UNESCO called for wider approval and a pluralist consensus about the building’s fate before such a major decision was made.
But, when asked last month in a television interview for his opinion about Greek fury over the potential decision, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan insisted that this issue was strictly a matter for national sovereignty.
“They dare tell us not to transform the Hagia Sophia into a mosque,” he said. “Are you ruling Turkey, or are we?”
Some recent polls suggest decreased support for the AKP if a snap election were to be held. For some people, the insistence on the Hagia Sophia’s status may be linked to this shrinking support. Last year, Erdogan’s statement about converting the Hagia Sophia coincided with the run-up to local elections in March 2019.
A recent survey conducted by the independent firm MetroPOLL showed that 44 percent of Turks believed that the public debates around the Hagia Sophia intended to distract attention away from the economic situation, with pro-government news channels featuring experts claiming that the landmark was originally “a shopping mall.”
“It is not a sign of strength but of weakness when political agendas are mobilized in the context of World Heritage sites,” Ekavi Athanassopoulou, tenured assistant professor of international relations and an expert in Turkish-Greek relations from the University of Athens, told Arab News.
US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo recently warned that any change in the Hagia Sophia’s status would weaken its ability to serve humanity as a “much-needed bridge” between those of differing faith traditions and cultures.
Last week, US Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom Sam Brownback called on Ankara to maintain the building as it was.
Ziya Meral, a senior associate fellow at the Royal United Services Institute, said the move was mostly about galvanizing the AKP’s constituency, the majority of whom shared a decades-long ambition to restore its mosque status.
“The fact that Erdogan has not done so for the last two decades until now clearly raises the question of what he sees as a positive return in an issue that is set to attract widespread disappointment in Europe and the wider Christian populations at home and around the world,” he told Arab News.
Meral added that, for Turkey’s Christians, the issue was not that the Hagia Sophia would once again technically be a mosque, or that Muslim prayers would be held there.
“It has already been a mosque for centuries,” he said.
“The issue is a disappointment that nationalist triumphalism negates their heritage and a shared space that can be a sacred site of healing and unity rather than exclusion. A short-sighted emotive sense of victory for the AKP and Erdogan, but to what benefit amid strained relations with Europe and the US, and crumbling tourism and economy beyond affirmation by people who already vote for the AKP is difficult to establish.”

‘No way we can rebuild’: Lebanese count huge losses after Beirut blast

Updated 07 August 2020

‘No way we can rebuild’: Lebanese count huge losses after Beirut blast

  • The search for those missing since Tuesday’s blast intensified overnight, as rescuers sifted rubble in a frantic race to find anyone still alive after the explosion
  • The government has promised a full investigation and put several port employees under house arrest

BEIRUT: Beirut residents began trying to rebuild their shattered lives on Friday after the biggest blast in the Lebanese capital’s history tore into the city, killing at least 154 and leaving the heavily indebted nation with another huge reconstruction bill.
The search for those missing since Tuesday’s blast intensified overnight, as rescuers sifted rubble in a frantic race to find anyone still alive after the explosion smashed a swathe of the city and sent shockwaves around the region.
Security forces fired teargas at a furious crowd late on Thursday, as anger boiled over at the government and a political elite, who have presided over a nation that was facing economic collapse even before the deadly port blast injured 5,000 people.
The small crowd, some hurling stones, marked a return to the kind of protests that had become a feature of life in Beirut, as Lebanese watched their savings evaporate and currency disintegrate, while government decision-making floundered.


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“There is no way we can rebuild this house. Where is the state?” Tony Abdou, an unemployed 60-year-old, sitting in the family home in Gemmayze, a district that lies a few hundred meters from the port warehouses where highly explosive material was stored for years, a ticking time bomb next to a densely populated area.
As Abdou spoke, a domestic water boiler fell through the ceiling of his cracked home, while volunteers from the neighborhood turned out on the street to sweep up debris.
“Do we actually have a government here?” said taxi driver Nassim Abiaad, 66, whose cab was crushed by falling building wreckage just as he was about to get into the vehicle.
“There is no way to make money anymore,” he said.
The government has promised a full investigation and put several port employees under house arrest. State news agency NNA said 16 people were taken into custody. But for many Lebanese, the explosion was symptomatic of the years of neglect by the authorities while state corruption thrived.
Officials have said the blast, whose seismic impact was recorded hundreds of miles (kilometers) away, might have caused losses amounting to $15 billion — a bill the country cannot pay when it has already defaulted on its mountain of national debt, exceeding 150% of economic output, and talks about a lifeline from the International Monetary Fund have stalled.
Hospitals, many heavily damaged as shockwaves ripped out windows and pulled down ceilings, have been overwhelmed by the number of casualties. Many were struggling to find enough foreign exchange to buy supplies before the explosion.
In the port area, rescue teams set up arc lights to work through the night in a dash to find those still missing, as families waited tensely, slowly losing hope of ever seeing loved ones again. Some victims were hurled into the sea because of the explosive force.
The weeping mother of one of the missing called a prime time TV program on Thursday night to plead with the authorities to find her son, Joe. He was found — dead — hours later.
Lebanese Red Cross Secretary General George Kettaneh told local radio VDL that three more bodies had been found in the search, while the health minister said on Friday the death toll had climbed to 154. Dozens are still unaccounted for.
Charbel Abreeni, who trained port employees, showed Reuters pictures on his phone of killed colleagues. He was sitting in a church where the head from the statue of the Virgin Mary had been blown off.
“I know 30 port employees who died, two of them are my close friends and a third is missing,” said the 62-year-old, whose home was wrecked in the blast. His shin was bandaged.
“I have nowhere to go except my wife’s family,” he said. “How can you survive here, the economy is zero?“
Offers of immediate medical and food aid have poured in from Arab states, Western nations and beyond. But none, so far, address the bigger challenges facing a bankrupt nation.
French President Emmanuel Macron came to the city on Thursday with a cargo from France. He promised to explain some “home truths” to the government, telling them they needed to root out corruption and deliver economic reforms.
He was greeted on the street by many Lebanese who asked for help in ensuring “regime” change, so a new set of politicians could rebuild Beirut and set the nation on a new course.
Beirut still bore scars from heavy shelling in the 1975-1990 civil war before the blast. After the explosion, chunks of the city once again look like a war zone.