As he announced the conversion of the former Byzantine cathedral Hagia Sophia into a mosque, on Friday, Turkish President Recip Erdogan also called for the “liberation” of a mosque in Israel.
He also stressed that the structure, built in 537 A.D., would still welcome all.
“I underline that we will open Hagia Sophia to worship as a mosque by preserving its character of humanity’s common cultural heritage,” he said in a televised address to the nation, according to the network. “Like all of our other mosques, the doors of Hagia Sophia will be open to all, locals or foreigners, Muslims and non-Muslims.”
But elsewhere in the remarks came language that raised eyebrows in Israel, where the al-Aqsa mosque stands in the Old City of Jerusalem
A report in the Jerusalem Post said the language was tweaked, depending on whether the speech was rendered in Turkish, English or Arabic.
The Arabic version talks of the “return of freedom to al-Aqsa,” the Jerusalem Post reported.
The Arabic version also discusses spreading Islam “from Bukhara in Uzbekistan to Andalusia in Spain.” No references to Spain are in the Turkish text, the Post reported.
“This terminology, linking al-Aqsa in Jerusalem to Hagia Sophia and Spain, is a kind of coded terminology for a wider religious agenda,” the Post reported.
The Jewish News Service, citing a pro-government Turkish publication, reported Erdogan as saying that the “resurrection of Hagia Sophia was the harbinger of the liberation of Masjid al-Aqsa [Al-Aqsa Mosque] and footsteps of Muslims’ will to leave hard days behind.”
In an opinion piece for the Israeli newspaper Haaretz, Louis Fishman, an assistant professor at Brooklyn College, said Erdogan is trying to portray himself as a Muslim hero.
“Among Islamist groups, the restoration of Hagia Sophia to a Muslim house of prayer is nothing less than proof that Islam is winning its ancient battle with the West, and that includes against the ‘new Crusaders – Israel,'” he wrote.
He wrote that the Turkish president’s focus on Muslim groups was “made explicit by the wildly divergent official texts that Erdogan’s office put out in English (determinedly pluralistic: ‘Hagia Sophia’s doors will be…wide open to all, foreign or local, Muslim or non-Muslim’) and Arabic (more aspirationally militant: the ‘Revival of Hagia Sophia is a sign of the return of freedom to the Al-Aqsa mosque.’)”
The different words appeal to different groups Erdogan wants to support him as their hero, Fishman wrote.
“Hardcore Islamists accept Erdogan maintaining relations with Israel as a necessary evil, a prelude to him marching into Jerusalem one day and liberating the Al-Aqsa mosque in person. More moderate followers’ more realistic scenario would have Erdogan as the key facilitator and mentor of a Palestinian state alongside Israel, with Jerusalem’s Al-Aqsa mosque under Palestinian sovereignty,” he wrote.
The Hagia Sophia that stands today is the third by that name, according to History.com.
The first was begun as a Christian basilica in the reign of Byzantine Emperor Constantius in the year 360. The structure was burned to the ground in 404 and rebuilt in 415 under Emperor Theodosios II. The current structure was built during the reign of Byzantine Emperor Justinian I and is nearly 1,500 years old.
After the fall of Constantinople in 1453, the Hagia Sophia became a mosque until 1934, when it was converted into a museum.
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