Egypt s Coptic Orthodox Church announced on Saturday it is preparing to gradually reopen its churches on Monday. Churches nationwide closed in mid-March in an attempt to curb the spread of the coronavirus. Starting 3 August, churches will be allowed to hold masses, prayers and funerals with no more than one individual on every bench in the church to be compliant with the precautionary measures against the virus. "Masses can be performed every day except on Fridays," a statement by the Church read. Funeral prayers of those who died from the coronavirus will be held at the tombs, not in churches, to preserve general health, the statement noted. The Orthodox Church said the decision to gradually reopen churches is the result of the reduced infection and death rates the country has been witnessing in the past few weeks. Egypt s Christians make up about 10-14 percent of the country s 100 million-plus population, with the vast majority of Christians in Egypt belonging to the Coptic Orthodox Church. Egypt has suspended mass prayers at mosques and shut down churches in March in a move aimed at curbing the outbreak of the pandemic in the populous country.
WASHINGTON (Reuters) — The United States on Wednesday imposed new sanctions aimed at cutting off funds for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad s government and warned that anyone doing business with Damascus was also at risk of being blacklisted. Assad s son, Hafez, was among four people and 10 entities, including a Syrian army unit, targeted by Washington over accusations they either aided government funding through luxury real estate construction — sometimes on land belonging to displaced civilians — or prolonged the nearly decade-long war. “More sanctions will follow as part of a sustained campaign of economic and political pressure to deny the Assad regime the resources it uses to wage war against the Syrian people,” the White House said in a statement. A crackdown by Assad on protesters in 2011 led to civil war, with Iran and Russia backing the government and the United States supporting the opposition. Millions of people have fled Syria and millions more have been internally displaced. The US sanctions, imposed under the Caesar Syria Civilian Protection Act and other measures, come as Assad grapples with a deepening economic crisis. Syria was already subject to US and European Union sanctions that have frozen assets of the state and hundreds of companies and individuals. Washington also bans American export and investment in Syria, as well as transactions involving oil and hydrocarbon products. Wednesday s action marks the second round of sanctions imposed by Washington under the Caesar Act, which can freeze the assets of anyone dealing with Syria, regardless of nationality, and cover many more sectors. It also targets those dealing with entities in Syria from Russia and Iran. US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said in a statement that the sanctions were intended to push Assad to take irreversible steps toward ending the country s war as called for by the United Nations Security Council. A senior US official, speaking on condition of anonymity, also cautioned investors in the Middle East, including Gulf nations, that the United States would not hesitate to blacklist those who help the Syrian government “steal land from displaced civilians to profit and support” Assad s government. Syrian authorities blame Western sanctions for widespread civilian hardship in the country, where a collapse of the currency has led to soaring prices and people struggling to afford food and basic supplies. US Ambassador to the United Nations Kelly Craft told a Security Council meeting on Syria on Wednesday that Washington s sanctions on Syria are not intended to harm the country s people and do not target humanitarian assistance.
Gunmen killed 14 villagers in central Nigeria s Kogi state on Wednesday, police said, blaming the attack on communal violence. The night-time attack on Agbudu village in Koton-Karfe area also left six people seriously injured, said state police commissioner Ede Ayuba in a statement. "I was there and I was part of those who picked up some of the dead bodies we are talking about," he said. He said 13 of the dead were members of the same family. "In that family, only one person survived. His uncle, his mother, his uncle s wife, his younger brother, his senior brother s wife, his wife and all his children were killed," he said. Ayuba said an investigation had been launched into the incident, adding that a long-standing row over land rights was a possible motive.
JERUSALEM/BEIRUT (Reuters) — Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Israeli forces thwarted an attempt by Hezbollah to infiltrate across the Lebanon frontier on Monday, which the Iranian-backed Shia group denied. “Hezbollah should know it is playing with fire,” Netanyahu said in a televised address from Israel s defense ministry headquarters in Tel Aviv. He cautioned that any attacks from Lebanese territory would draw a powerful response. Earlier, a Reuters witness in Lebanon counted dozens of Israeli shells hitting the disputed Shebaa Farms area along the frontier. Fires burned and smoke rose from the area, but no casualties were reported by Israel or Hezbollah. Occupied by Israel, the Shebaa Farms is claimed by Lebanon. The United Nations regards it as part of Syrian territory captured by Israel in the 1967 Middle East war. Israeli forces have been on alert along the northern border in anticipation of Hezbollah retaliation for the killing of one of its members a week ago in an alleged Israeli attack on the edge of the Syrian capital Damascus. “A Hezbollah squad infiltrated Israeli territory,” Netanyahu said. Saying that Lebanon had “paid a heavy price” for Hezbollah attacks on Israel in the past, Netanyahu cautioned the group s leader, Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah, “not to repeat this mistake.” An Israeli military spokesman said between three and five Hezbollah militants had taken part in the operation and had crossed back into Lebanon. Hezbollah, which last fought a war with Israel in 2006, denied that its forces tried to cross the frontier and said in a statement that the Shebaa Farms incident was “one-sided”. “There were no clashes or opening of fire from our side in today s events,” Hezbollah said. “Our response to the martyrdom of Ali Kamel [Mohsen] […] will surely come,” it said, referring to the fighter who died in Syria. A Lebanese source said Hezbollah had fired a guided missile at an Israeli tank. Israeli military spokesman Lieutenant-Colonel Jonathan Conricus told reporters he was unaware of any such incident. After the killing of two Hezbollah members in Damascus last August, Nasrallah vowed to respond if Israel killed any more of its fighters in Syria. However the group s deputy leader on Sunday said an all-out war with Israel was unlikely. Hezbollah fighters have deployed in Syria as part of Iranian-backed efforts to support President Bashar al-Assad. Israel sees the presence of Hezbollah and Iran in Syria as a strategic threat, and has mounted hundreds of raids on Iranian-linked targets there.
Pope Tawadros II of Alexandria announced that churches in Cairo and Alexandria will be reopened for prayers on August 3, according to a Facebook statement on Saturday from the Coptic Orthodox Church’s official spokesperson. In June 27, the Standing Committee of the Holy Synod of the Coptic Orthodox Church, headed by Pope Tawadros II, had extended the suspension of prayers at all dioceses under the See of St Mark on Sunday and Friday at Cairo and Alexandria up until mid-July. The suspension decision emerged upon following up the spread of the coronavirus. With churches at Cairo and Alexandria having seen a rise in infection rates, the committee explained at the time that the best course of action was to postpone the reopening of churches there until mid-July, where the situation will then be reassessed. On March 21, the church closed all churches and stopped all ritual services, masses and gatherings as part of precautionary measures to prevent the spread of the coronavirus. The church’s decision came after a meeting by the Standing Committee of the Holy Synod, headed by Pope Tawadros II, to discuss the pandemic’s latest developments. A committee statement said that the decision came “given that gatherings represent the greatest danger leading to the rapid spread of the virus, out of the national and ecclesiastical responsibility of the Coptic Orthodox Church, and to preserve all the people of Egypt.” The church also shut down funeral halls and limited any funeral attendance to the families of the deceased only, provided that each parish allocates one church for funerals and prohibits visits to all monasteries.
ISTANBUL (Reuters) – With thousands of Instagram followers and even a former U.S. president as a fan, Gli the cat is almost as famous as her home, Istanbul’s ancient Hagia Sophia. But with the decision to turn the museum into a mosque, Turks have been wondering whether Gli will have to move out — with the question cropping up daily on local news outlets and social media. The grey cat with shining green, crossed eyes, has become a favorite with visitors, including former US President Barack Obama, who was filmed stroking her during a trip in 2009. Authorities have made clear Hagia Sophia can remain as her home. Ibrahim Kalin, spokesman for President Tayyip Erdogan, told Reuters that Gli, as well as all other cats in the area, would stay where they were. “That cat has become very famous, and there are others who haven’t become that famous yet. That cat will be there, and all cats are welcome to our mosques,” he said. That’s bound to be welcome news to Umut Bahceci, a tour guide who started an Instagram account for Gli four years ago and now has more than 48,000 followers. The account is filled with photos of the cat, some tagged by the tourists who meet her. “I started noticing Gli every time I went (to Hagia Sophia) because Gli was posing for people like a model,” she told Reuters. “I get messages such as, ‘Gli, we will come to Istanbul to see you.’ This is truly a very nice feeling,” Hagia Sophia was a Christian Byzantine cathedral for 900 years before it was seized by Ottoman conquerors and served as a mosque until 1934. A court ruled this month that the building’s conversion to a museum then was unlawful. Erdogan immediately declared the building a mosque once more, with the first prayers to be held this Friday. Reporting by Ali Kucukgocmen and Bulent Usta; Editing by Alison Williams
Motorcycle-riding gunmen in northern Nigeria have killed 11 people, local government and community leaders said Wednesday, in the latest violence in the area. The attack on Monday came a day after assailants gunned down 18 wedding guests in a nearby village. The gunmen stormed Gora Gan village in Kaduna state after dark and opened fire on residents, said Elias Manza, administrative head of Zangon Kataf district. "The gunmen killed 11 people in the attack and left 15 with serious injuries," he said. The attackers also torched houses, a church, a car and seven motorcycles. Community leader Jonathan Asake who gave a similar toll, said hundreds had fled their homes for fear of renewed attacks. "We have a total of 559 people who are afraid to go back to their homes and are sheltering in a primary school in the (nearby) town of Zonkwa," he said. Southern Kaduna has been wracked by a long-standing row between Muslim Fulani herders and ethnic Christian farmers over grazing and water rights. There has been an upsurge in tit-for-tat killings between the two groups in recent times, prompting the state authorities to initiate an unsuccessful truce. The Nigerian presidency said in a statement Tuesday the violence was "more complicated than many people are willing to admit". It added that "revenge killings were worsening the conflict and making efforts of security personnel in ending the violence difficult".
The Egyptian armed forces thwarted a terrorist attack on a security post in the Bir al-Abd area in North Sinai. The armed forces securing the post, in cooperation with the Air Force, chased the terrorists onto a farm and several unoccupied houses, where they then killed all 18 individuals involved and destroyed four vehicles, three of which were prepped for car bombings. Two armed forces personnel were killed during the defense of the security post, and four others were injured, a statement for the armed forces said. The statement assured that the armed forces are dutifully continuing their mission to uproot terrorism and maintain the security and safety of the homeland. The Egyptian military has for years been waging a bloody insurgency against Islamist militants in Egypt. Violence escalated in 2013, following the ouster of President Mohamed Morsi by the army. Scores of Egyptian security personnel have been killed in attacks, primarily by militants from a local affiliate of the Islamic State group. In 2018, Egyptian security forces launched a nationwide operation targeting militants, focusing on the restive North Sinai region. According to army data, at least 845 suspected militants have been killed in the region along with more than 60 security personnel.
Jordan s prime minister says the kingdom would look “positively” on the creation of a binational state that guarantees equal rights to Israelis and Palestinians if Israel s proposed annexation of parts of the occupied West Bank closes the door on a two-state solution. The international community and the Palestinian leadership remain committed to a two-state solution to the decades-old conflict. Israel rejects the idea of a binational state, fearing an eventual Palestinian majority would endanger its existence as a Jewish state. But Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu s pledge to annex up to a third of the West Bank in line with President Donald Trump s Mideast plan would make it virtually impossible to establish a viable Palestinian state. Critics say that would force Israel to choose between being an apartheid state or granting equal rights to all. “You close the door to the two-state solution, I could very well look at this positively, if we re clearly opening the door to a one-state democratic solution, Jordan s Prime Minister Omar Razzaz told the UK s Guardian newspaper in an interview published Tuesday. “But nobody in Israel is talking about that, and so we cannot just sugar-coat what they re doing. Who s talking about the one-state solution in Israel? They re talking about apartheid in every single sense,” he added. “I challenge anybody from Israel to say yes, let s end the two-state solution, it s not viable, he said. “But let s work together on a one-state democratic solution. That, I think, we will look at very favourably. But closing one and wishful thinking about the other is just self-deception. Jordan, a close Western ally and one of just two Arab states to have made peace with Israel, is strongly opposed to annexation. Along with most Arab and Western countries, it supports Palestinian demands for a state in the West Bank, Gaza, and east Jerusalem, territories captured by Israel in the 1967 war. Earlier this month, a prominent Jewish American commentator came out in favor of a binational state, sending shock waves through the Jewish establishment and Washington foreign policy circles. Peter Beinart, a journalism professor at City University of New York and contributor to The Atlantic, argued that the two-state solution was no longer possible and endorsed the idea of a single democratic state between the Mediterranean and the Jordan River with equal rights for Jews and Palestinians. Support for a democratic, binational state is still largely confined to a small group of intellectuals on both sides of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. No major party or faction in Israel or the Palestinian territories endorses it. While the two-state solution is still widely seen as the only way of resolving the conflict, the two sides remain deeply divided about the core issues and have not held substantive talks in more than a decade.
BEIRUT (AP) — An explosion rocked a rebel-held area in northern Syria across the border from Turkey late Sunday, killing at least five people and wounding dozens, opposition activists and Turkish state media reported. The car bomb went off near the Bab al-Salameh border crossing with Turkey, the reports said. The area is controlled by Turkey-backed opposition fighters. The blast killed seven and wounded more than 60, including women and children, according to the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. The opposition war monitor said the blast was most likely carried out by sleeper cells of the Islamic State group. Other opposition activists said the blast killed five and wounded dozens. Turkey s state-run Anadolu news agency reported that at least five civilians were killed and 85 wounded in the blast. The agency said that some of the wounded who were in critical condition were taken for treatment in Turkey. It said no one claimed responsibility for the attack, adding that Kurdish fighters have carried out such attacks in the past. Anadolu reported another blast earlier Sunday wounded 13 people, including children, in the Syrian town of Afrin, which is controlled by Turkey-backed opposition fighters. Sunday s attacks came as parliamentary elections took place in government-held parts of the war-torn country. As in previous elections in Syria, the vote will produce a rubber-stamp body loyal to President Bashar Assad. Turkey and allied Syrian fighters took control of Afrin in 2018 in a military operation that expelled local US-backed Kurdish fighters and displaced tens of thousands of Kurdish residents. Ankara considers the Kurdish fighters who were in control of Afrin terrorists. Since then, there have been a series of attacks on Turkish targets in the area.
Turkey sent between 3,500 and 3,800 paid Syrian fighters to Libya over the first three months of the year, the US Defense Department s inspector general concluded in a new report, its first to detail Turkish deployments that helped change the course of Libya s war. The report comes as the conflict in oil-rich Libya has escalated into a regional proxy war fueled by foreign powers pouring weapons and mercenaries into the country. The US military has grown increasingly concerned about Russia s growing influence in Libya, where hundreds of Russian mercenaries backed a campaign to capture the capital, Tripoli, in the country s west. The quarterly report on counterterrorism operations in Africa by the Pentagon s internal watchdog, published Thursday, says Turkey paid and offered citizenship to thousands of mercenaries fighting alongside Tripoli-based militias against troops of east Libya-based commander Khalifa Haftar. Despite widespread reports of the fighters extremist links, the report says the US military found no evidence to suggest the mercenaries were affiliated with the Islamic State extremist group or al-Qaida. It says they were “very likely” motivated by generous financial packages rather than ideology or politics. The report covers only the first quarter of the year, until the end of March — two months before a string of Turkish-backed victories by the Tripoli forces drove Haftar s self-styled army from the capital s suburbs, its stronghold at Tarhuna and a key western airbase. The reversal for Haftar and his foreign backers, including Egypt, Russia and the United Arab Emirates, trained the spotlight on Turkey s deepening role in the proxy war. The latest report says the Turkish deployments likely increased ahead of the Tripoli forces triumphs in late May. It cites the US Africa Command as saying that 300 Turkish-supported Syrian rebels landed in Libya in early April. Turkey also deployed an “unknown number” of Turkish soldiers during the first months of the year, the inspector general adds. To the consternation of regional rivals and NATO allies like France, Turkey is staking its hopes for greater leverage in the eastern Mediterranean on the UN-supported government in Tripoli. Ankara s open military intervention stands in contrast to covert support from foreign backers on the other side of the conflict. The inspector general had reported in its last quarterly review that Russia brought in hundreds of mercenaries to back Haftar s months-long siege of Tripoli. A private Kremlin-linked military company known as the Wagner Group first introduced skilled snipers and armed drones last fall, inflicting “significant casualties” on Tripoli forces struggling to fend off Haftar s assault, the report said. This year, in response to Turkey s new shipments of battle-hardened Syrians, Wagner increased its deployment of foreign fighters, also including Syrians, with estimates ranging from 800 to 2,500 mercenaries. Russia and the Syrian government agreed to send 300 to 400 former opposition rebels from the southwest village of Quneitra to Libya in exchange for a $1,000 per month salary and clemency from President Bashar Assad, the report added. In May, the Pentagon accused Russia of sending at least 14 warplanes to a central Libyan airbase, which it claimed were repainted in Syria to hide their Russian origin. Earlier this week, it alleged Russian mercenaries planted land mines and other booby-trap explosives around Tripoli that have killed 52 people and wounded 96, including civilians and mine clearance workers, by UN estimates. Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov dismissed the US military s accusations Thursday, insisting “the Russian military is not involved in any processes in Libya in any way.” The warring sides are mobilizing now around the edges of Sirte, a strategic gateway to Libya s central and eastern oil crescent, where most of the country s production of 1.2 million barrels a day flowed before Haftar-allied tribes choked off pipelines in January to protest unequal distribution of oil revenues to the long-neglected east. Following Hafter s retreat from Tripoli, his backers pushed for a cease-fire and proposed a political settlement. But Turkey refused to back down. The Tripoli government, eager to regain access to Haftar s blockaded oil fields, has pledged to retake the coastal city, where longtime autocrat Moammar Gadhafi was born and then killed after a 2011 NATO-backed uprising. Egypt, a bitter rival of Turkey that shares a porous desert border with Libya, has threatened to intervene militarily if Turkish-backed forces try to seize Sirte. On Thursday, Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sissi hosted dozens of tribal leaders loyal to Hafter in Cairo, where he repeated that Egypt will “not stand idly by in the face of moves that pose a direct threat to security.” On Friday, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan hit back, criticizing Egyptian and Emirati support for Haftar. Military tensions increased further this week after the collapse of a deal to end the blockade of Libyan oil fields, which has deprived the country of its most important economic resource and the National Oil Corporation of over $7 billion in revenue. Oil has long been a key factor in the conflict, with militias and their foreign backers jockeying for control of Africa s largest reserves. On Friday, the National Oil Corporation warned that international powers were pulling the country toward an escalation likely to extend to the oil and gas facilities. A “large number” of Syrian, Sudanese and Russian mercenaries are occupying oil installations, most recently Libya s largest port of Es Sidra, the corporation said.
Jordan s top court has dissolved the country s branch of the Muslim Brotherhood, a transnational Islamist movement, an official said Thursday, citing the group s failure to "rectify its legal status". "The Court of Cassation yesterday (Wednesday) issued a final verdict ruling that the Muslim Brotherhood group is dissolved... for failing to rectify its legal status under Jordanian law," the official said, requesting anonymity. The Muslim Brotherhood, founded in Egypt in 1928, has been outlawed as a "terrorist" group in Egypt and banned in several other countries. Amman had tolerated the group s political arm for decades, but since 2014 authorities have considered it illegal, arguing its licence was not renewed under a 2014 law on political parties. It continued to operate, but its relations with the Jordanian state deteriorated further from 2015 when the government authorised an offshoot group, the Muslim Brotherhood Association. In April 2016, security services closed the Brotherhood s Amman headquarters and several regional offices, transferring their ownership to the splinter group in a step the movement denounced as political. The original Brotherhood took the case to court in a bid to retrieve the properties, but the court in its verdict Wednesday ordered it dissolved. The Brotherhood argues that it had already obtained licences to operate under previous laws in the 1940s and 1950s. Sheikh Hamza Mansur, head of the organisation s ruling council, said the group would appeal against Wednesday s ruling. "The Muslim Brotherhood ... is a model of moderation and an important element in strengthening national unity, so dissolving it is not in the national interest," told AFP. The Jordanian breakaway group aimed to sever ties with the Brotherhood in Egypt. Jordan s Islamic Action Front, a political party aligned with the original Brotherhood chapter there, has had 16 members of parliament since 2016 elections. It had boycotted polls in 2010 and 2013. Polls are set for later this year but the coronavirus crisis has cast doubt over whether they will take place. The Jordanian branch of the Muslim Brotherhood has wide grassroots support in the kingdom. The movement is also banned in Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and other countries in the region, but is supported by Turkey and Qatar.
Recep Tayyip Erdogan continues to make life more difficult for Christians and Muslims alike, both inside his country and in the world outside. On Friday, a top administrative court in Turkey paved the way for the most visited monument standing in the heart of Istanbul, the Hagia Sophia, to be converted, despite international warnings, back into a mosque after it had annulled a 1934 government decree turning the building — originally a sixth century Byzantine cathedral — into a museum. As soon as the decision was announced, crowds holding flags of Turkey gathered outside the Hagia Sophia chanting “Allahu Akbar” (God is Great) while President Erdogan went on social media to celebrate. Erdogan tweeted a copy of the decree, which shows transfer of authority over the building from the Ministry of Culture to the Ministry of Religious Affaris, the “Diyanet”, with a “congratulations” note added from the president. Many praised the decision, and Erdogan. “I will pray for you until I die. You are the new and invincible leader of the Islamic world and Turkey, I offer you my gratitude,” was one tweet in reply to the president s tweet. “In the dome that will echo again, believers will meet again. Thank goodness to my Lord who shows us these days,” stated another response. On the other hand, as a response to the president s post, a Greek woman, Helen, tweeted a photo from the interior of the building, a mosaic of Virgin Mary holding child Jesus and a note: “Theotokos is watching you Tayyip.” Theotokos is Mother of God or Mother of Jesus, the term is used in the Eastern Orthodox Church to describe Virgin Mary. The 27 EU foreign ministers met Monday, the first face-to-face meeting in months, and “condemned the Turkish decision to convert such an emblematic monument as the Hagia Sophia,” EU Foreign Policy Chief Josep Borrell said, calling on Turkish authorities to “urgently consider and reverse this decision”. Greek government spokesman Stelios Petsas said Greece will impose sanctions on Turkey. “Anyone who violates international law must understand that for this delinquent behaviour there are sanctions that hurt,” he said. Greek genocide scholar Vassilios Meichanetsidis is not so optimistic. “I am afraid it is hard to have effective sanctions against Turkey. The West appears rather indifferent or mild towards the matter,” he told Al-Ahram Weekly, explaining that there was indifference from the West in the past too, when the Ittihadists and the Kemalists slaughtered nearly three million Ottoman Christians (Armenians, Assyrians and Greeks) and burnt to the ground the city of Smyrna and other Christian-inhabited cities across Anatolia. “The EU is in obvious moral and political decline. For example, EU member Germany sells weapons to Turkey to carry out its wars in northern Iraq, Syria and Libya. There is no consideration for the loss of human lives, but only economic interests,” said Meichanetsidis, calling on neutral countries and those suffering from Turkey s violations to boycott Erdogan regime. UNESCO expressed its deep regret over the conversion “without prior discussion”, and called for the universal value of the 1,500-year-old World Heritage Site to be preserved. “Any modification requires prior notification by the State concerned to UNESCO and then, if necessary, examination by the World Heritage Committee,” read the UN affiliated organisation s statement, adding that it will review the status of the monument. The building is on the list of World Heritage Sites since 1985. Later, after the statement was issued, Turkey s Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said that his country will inform the organisation about steps being taken regarding the Hagia Sophia. Although the conversion of the UNESCO site was long a demand of Turkey s Islamists, some in the Turkish opposition are siding with Erdogan s decision. Former prime minister and leader of the newly formed opposition Future Party, Ahmet Davutoglu, a few weeks ago called the government to “stop treating the country s sacred symbols as a get-out-of-jail-free card whenever you are stuck, it is not a tool in your hands or a bargaining chip.” After the court s decision, Davutoglu tweeted: “The responsible position expressed by the government and the opposition is appreciated. Best wishes for the symbol of conquest and honesty of the conqueror of Hagia Sophia which is an accumulation of the civilisation of all Istanbul.” “For the Muslim majority of the country, the Hagia Sophia is a very important symbol, so it is difficult for a major political power or personality to openly oppose this kind of decision. Both Erdogan and Davutoglu are fighting for the same politically oriented votes, so they have quite similar agendas,” assistant professor at Yerevan State University Varujan Keghamian, who often writes about Turkey related issues, told the Weekly, adding that only the pro-Kurdish HDP (The People s Democratic Party) opposed the decision, “as it has not much to lose”. HDP Co-Deputy Director and Diyarbekir MP Garo Paylan raised the subject of the conversion in parliament, reminding the speaker of Erdogan s stance on the matter a year ago. Erdogan only a year ago during an interview on a TV programme said, “Reopening Hagia Sophia as a mosque has a trade-off. The bill for such a decision will be far too heavy. We have thousands of mosques here. As a political leader, I haven t gone so far off course as to get into that game.” So why is he playing that game now? “While the mayor of Istanbul, Erdogan spoke about the importance of the cathedral for Muslims and his desire to see it as a mosque. Starting from the 2010s, when authoritarian tendencies increased in Turkey and Islamic nationalism became the dominant ideology, the ruling elite periodically stated that work is underway to turn the cathedral into a mosque. However, concrete steps have been taken only now, which is not so much related to the desire to see a mosque instead of a museum, as to the domestic political situation,” Keghamian told the Weekly. He stressed that social and economic hardship that has further downgraded Erdogan s ratings is forcing authorities to take populist steps so as to mobilise the Islamic electorate. “However, it is important to note that despite the symbolic importance, and some mobilisation of its electorate, this is unlikely to help in the long term,” Keghamian said. Palestine-born historian Basheer Nafie thinks that the controversy over the Hagia Sophia will neither benefit nor change anything. The conversion of the Hagia Sophia to a museum in 1934 was not legal in the first place, and throughout the decades that decision was the source of pain in the Turkish conscience, he tweeted. Turkey s president announced first prayers is scheduled to take place in the Hagia Sophia 24 July. “Symbolism is of crucial importance in Turkish politics. 24 July is long commemorated in Turkey as the Day of Lausanne. The 1923 Treaty of Lausanne recognised the government of Kemal Ataturk and in fact became the founding document of the Republic of Turkey,” Keghamian explained, adding that the Kemalist elite, against which the Islamist elite led by Erdogan is struggling in recent decades, repeatedly stated that the Lausanne Treaty was not a victory, but a set of defeats for Turkey. “In a symbolic struggle against the Kemalist legacy, 24 July will have a new meaning, which symbolises the Islamic victory against secular values. It can be assumed that this was the reason for setting such a date for the opening of the cathedral to Islamist Turks,” Keghamian told the Weekly. According to the Diyanet, the religious affairs directorate, two imams and four muazzins (those who call for prayer) will be appointed by the state institution regulating the role of Islam in the country. “Necessary steps” will be taken in dealing with the icons on the walls. “They will be covered by curtains or lasers during prayer times,” an AKP spokesman said. “We will accept all attitudes and statements regarding this matter, other than voicing views in violation of our independence. Just as we as Turkey do not interfere in decisions on places of worship in other countries, we expect the same understanding about us protecting our historical and legal rights. To what purpose Hagia Sophia will be utilised is a matter of Turkey s sovereign rights,” Erdogan said in his address to the nation after he signed the decree.
ISTANBUL (Reuters) — Mosaics in Istanbul s ancient Hagia Sophia will be covered by curtains or lasers during times of Muslim prayer, the spokesman for Turkey s ruling AK Party said on Monday, after President Tayyip Erdogan converted the museum into a mosque. The Christian icons would be uncovered and be open to all visitors at other times, and admission would be free of charge, the AKP s Omer Celik said. It was not immediately clear how the lasers would work. On Friday, a Turkish court ruled that the building s conversion to a museum in 1934 was unlawful and Erdogan, declaring it a mosque, said the first prayers would be held there within two weeks. The move drew international criticism and concern, including from Greece, the United States and Russia, as well as UNESCO and Pope Francis, who said he was hurt by the decision. Celik told a news conference in Ankara that the biggest disrespect to Hagia Sophia in history was done by the papacy. He said Orthodox Christians and Hagia Sophia had suffered for years during a “Latin invasion” led by the papacy in the 13th century, when Crusaders pillaged the cathedral. Greece condemned the decision on Friday, saying it would have repercussions on relations between the two countries and on Turkey s ties with the European Union. The US State Department said it was “disappointed” by the move. The leader of Italy s far-right League party, Matteo Salvini, led a demonstration outside the Turkish consulate in Milan to protest against the decision. “I would stop every kind of financial aid to the Turkish regime and I would terminate once and for all any hypothesis of Turkey entering the European Union because we have given more than 10 billion euros to a regime that transforms churches into mosques and I think they have gone over the limit,” he said. UNESCO said on Friday it would review the status of the monument as a World Heritage Site following Erdogan s announcement. Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said Ankara was surprised by UNESCO s reaction and would let it know of further steps that will be taken regarding Hagia Sophia, which was a Byzantine church for nine centuries before the Ottomans converted it to a mosque. Turkey is sensitive about protecting its historical character, he said. “We have to protect our ancestors heritage. The function can be this way or that way – it does not matter,” Cavusoglu told state broadcaster TRT Haber.
Patriarch Theodore II of the Greek Orthodox Church of Alexandria slammed on Sunday a decision by a Turkish court on Friday that allows the conversion of Istanbul s iconic Hagia Sophia -- a former cathedral-turned-mosque that now serves as a museum -- back into a mosque. “I felt great sadness and concern at the conversion of the biggest historical Christian landmark in the East, the Cathedral of Hagia Sophia, into a mosque. This challenge stirs water already troubled during the coronavirus pandemic,” read the statement. The head of the Greek Orthodox Church said that Turkey is using historical and cultural rights for other purposes, at a time in which people should come together and fight that invisible enemy of the coronavirus. “The opposite happens in Egypt, as everybody enjoys religious freedom and peaceful coexistence, our President El-Sisi grants titles to our Christian churches on a daily basis, and the political authorities as well as the state allow us freedom of worship, renovation, beautification and preservation of our churches,” said Theodore.
Pope Francis has said he s "pained" by Turkey s decision to convert Istanbul s Hagia Sophia back into a mosque. Speaking at a service in the Vatican, the Roman Catholic leader added that his "thoughts go to Istanbul". Hagia Sophia was built as a Christian cathedral nearly 1,500 years ago and turned into a mosque after the Ottoman conquest of 1453. The Unesco World Heritage Site became a museum in 1934 under Turkish Republic founding father Ataturk. But earlier this week a Turkish court annulled the site s museum status, saying its use as anything other than a mosque was "not possible legally". Pope Francis confined himself to a few words on the issue: "My thoughts go to Istanbul. I think of Santa Sophia and I am very pained." President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said the first Muslim prayers would be held in Hagia Sophia on July 24. Shortly after the announcement, the first call to prayer was recited at the site and broadcast on all of Turkey s main news channels. Hagia Sophia s social media channels have also been taken down. Islamists in Turkey have long called for it to become a mosque again but secular opposition members opposed the move. Erdogan: Turkey s pugnacious president Is pandemic being used for power grab in Europe? BBC - Travel - An insider s tour of Hagia Sophia Defending the decision, President Erdogan stressed that the country had exercised its sovereign right, and he added that the building would remain open to all Muslims, non-Muslims and foreign visitors. Voices not heard The Pope is one of several religious and political leaders worldwide who have criticised the move. The World Council of Churches has called on President Erdogan to reverse the decision. The Church in Russia, home to the world s largest Orthodox Christian community, immediately expressed regret that the Turkish court had not taken its concerns into account when ruling on Hagia Sophia. It has also drawn condemnation from Greece, and Unesco said its World Heritage Committee would now review the monument s status. One of Turkey s most famous authors, Orhan Pamuk, told the BBC that the decision would take away the "pride" some Turks had in being a secular Muslim nation. "There are millions of secular Turks like me who are crying against this but their voices are not heard," said Mr Pamuk. History of a global icon Hagia Sophia s complex history began in the year 537 when Byzantine emperor Justinian built the huge church overlooking the Golden Horn harbour With its huge dome, it was believed to be the world s largest church and building It remained in Byzantine hands for centuries apart from a brief moment in 1204 when Crusaders raided the city In 1453, in a devastating blow to the Byzantines, Ottoman Sultan Mehmed II captured Istanbul (formerly known as Constantinople) and the victorious conqueror performed Friday prayers inside Hagia Sophia The Ottomans soon converted the building into a mosque, adding four minarets to the exterior and covering ornate Christian icons and gold mosaics with panels of Arabic religious calligraphy After centuries at the heart of the Muslim Ottoman empire, it was turned into a museum in 1934 in a drive to make Turkey more secular Today Hagia Sophia is Turkey s most popular tourist site, attracting more than 3.7 million visitors a year
BEIRUT (AP) — A Lebanese businessman serving a five-year sentence in the United States for providing millions of dollars to the militant Hezbollah group arrived Wednesday in Beirut after his early release, local media reported. Kassim Tajideen was sentenced last year in a federal court in Washington for his role in a money laundering conspiracy aimed at evading US sanctions. He was arrested in Morocco and extradited to the US in 2017, where he was charged with laundering money for Hezbollah. A State Department official said the US government had opposed Tajideen s motion for compassionate release but in the end the court ruled in his favor. Tajideen, who was designated as a terrorist in 2009, would remain on a terrorist list and his assets would remain blocked, the official added. The fact that he is being released early doesn t diminish the severity of his crime, the official said, speaking on condition of anonymity in line with regulations. There was no immediate comment from Lebanese officials on Tajideen s early release. Lebanon s National News Agency reported Tajideen s arrival. A local Lebanese TV station, LBC, broadcast a video taken with a mobile phone of his arrival at the Beirut airport. He stepped out of a small jet, wearing a face mask as a necessary coronavirus precaution. The video shows a man rushing toward Tajideen, hugging him and stooping down to Tajideen s feet in celebration of his release. A federal judge in Washington had ordered Tajideen s release in May. The National, an English language newspaper in the United Arab Emirates, said the 64-year-old Tajideen was granted compassionate release due to health conditions and fears of coronavirus infections in prison. The US Department of Justice had contested the release. Tajideen was accused of conspiring with at least five other people to conduct over $50 million in transactions with US businesses in violation of sanctions barring him from doing business with US nationals and companies because of his support for Hezbollah. Washington has designated the Iran-backed Hezbollah a terrorist group. Tajideen pleaded guilty last December and agreed to forfeit $50 million. In March, a Lebanese military tribunal ordered the release of a Lebanese-American held in the country for nearly six months on charges of working for an Israeli-backed militia two decades ago. Amer Fakhoury s release raised speculation that Tajideen may be granted early release in return. Fakhoury, 57, who had faced decades-old murder and torture charges in Lebanon, became a US citizen last year and is now a restaurant owner in Dover, New Hampshire. US officials had called for imposing sanctions on Lebanon to pressure Beirut to release him. Separately, Gen. Kenneth McKenzie, commander of US Central Command, visited Lebanon on Wednesday, where he met with President Michel Aoun and senior political and defense officials. The US Embassy said McKenzie reaffirmed to Aoun the “importance of preserving Lebanon s security, stability and sovereignty” and the strong partnership between the US and the Lebanese Armed Forces. McKenzie also made a brief stop at memorials honoring Americans who perished while serving in Lebanon. Bombings in 1983 of the US Embassy and US Marine barracks in Beirut killed nearly 260 Americans and 63 others. McKenzie s visit and reports that he may visit the Marine barracks bombing site sparked anti-US protests. Dozens gathered near the airport amid a heavy deployment of soldiers. Some chanted “Death to America” and expressed support for the 1983 attacks and raised Hezbollah and Communist Party flags. Others burned a picture of US Ambassador Dorothy Shea and the Israeli flag. McKenzie s visit comes as Lebanon is facing its worst economic and financial crisis, which has triggered anti-government protests and created domestic political tension between rival groups. Amid the crisis, strained relations between Washington and Hezbollah, the country s powerful militant group with strong political representation, have deepened. Although the US designates Hezbollah as a terrorist group, it is also a major donor to the Lebanese Armed Forces. Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah lashed out late Tuesday at Shea, calling recent public comments she made that were critical of his group “unacceptable.” Nasrallah also accused Washington of taking advantage of the economic crisis to stir public opinion against Hezbollah and try to “isolate” his group. “Hezbollah won t give up. This will only strengthen it and weaken your allies and your influence,” Nasrallah said, addressing Washington. US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo didn t respond to questions about Tajideen s release, but said Washington will continue to enforce sanctions on Hezbollah while calling for reforms to ensure a path out of Lebanon s current economic crisis. “There can be no mistake what the United States has done and will continue to do to put pressure on Hezbollah and also to try to assist the people of Lebanon at building out a successful government,” he told reporters Wednesday. “Hezbollah is a terrorist organization and we are supportive if Lebanon as long as they get the reforms right and they re not a proxy state for Iran in Lebanon.”
Leader of the Libyan National Army (LNA) Khalifa Haftar vowed on Wednesday to protect Libya s fortunes from the "barbaric aggression" of Turkey. Haftar, amid leaked reports about Turkish intentions to attack Al-Jufra, said the LNA will continue to build its troops for its anti-terrorism campaign. Turkey seeks to control Libya s fortunes to solve its economic crisis, said Haftar. "Turkey is practising barbaric aggression against Libya. It established rooms of operations and sends its officers, mercenaries and weapons to Libya to fight the LNA," Haftar was quoted by Sky News Arabia as saying. "Our nation is under imminent threat to its present and future by the hateful Turkish colonialism," he added. Haftar vowed to stop the transfer of further weapons and mercenaries to Libya, stressing his support to the international community s demands concerning working on a political settlement to the Libyan conflict. The Government of National Accord (GNA), which is based in Tripoli, is backed by Turkish troops and thousands of Syrian mercenaries in its war against the eastern-based LNA and its leader Haftar. During the past week, local and foreign media outlets reported that Turkey is preparing to attack Al-Jufra. Sources told Al-Arabiya on Monday that Turkish intelligence officials were wounded following the LNA s air strikes on Al-Watiya air base on Sunday, which was recently captured by the GNA and its Turkish backers. The wounded were transferred to hospitals in Tripoli and Turkey. Brigadier-General Khaled Al-Mahgoub, an LNA leading commander, told Al-Arabiya that similar strikes on Al-Watiya will soon take place. Al-Mahgoub also said that Turkish radars, military equipment and air defence systems were destroyed during the air strikes. Turkey, according to sources who spoke to Reuters in June, is negotiating the establishment of two bases -- including one at Watiya -- with the GNA. Al-Watiya is western Libya s most significant air base.
GENEVA (Reuters) — Syrian and Russian planes have carried out deadly aerial strikes amounting to war crimes on schools, hospitals and markets in Idlib province, UN investigators said on Tuesday in a report that also condemned attacks by jihadist fighters. They said that “indiscriminate bombardment” by pro-government forces, ahead of a March ceasefire brokered with Turkey, claimed hundreds of lives and forced nearly one million civilians to flee, which may amount to a crime against humanity. The UN Commission of Inquiry on Syria also accused Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), a jihadist group that controls part of northwest Syria, of firing artillery into civilian areas “with no apparent legitimate military objective.” Fighters from HTS, a group formerly known as Nusra Front, have tortured and executed detainees, it added. “What is clear from the military campaign is that pro-government forces and UN-designated terrorists flagrantly violated the laws of war and the rights of Syrian civilians,” Paulo Pinheiro, chairman of the UN panel, said in a statement. The report, covering Nov. 2019 until June 2020, was based on overflight data and witness testimony. It examines 52 “emblematic attacks” in northwest Syria, including 47 attributed to the Russian-backed Syrian government. Russian warplanes were solely implicated in a deadly March 5 strike on a poultry farm near Marat Misrin that sheltered displaced people and in three strikes next to a hospital damaged in the rebel-held town of Ariha on Jan. 29, the report said. Russia denies involvement in the latter attack, it said. The region is home to a mix of Islamist militant and opposition groups, many of which fled other parts of Syria as President Bashar al-Assad, with Russian backing, seized back territory from them. “The Commission has reasonable grounds to believe that pro-government forces committed the war crimes of deliberately attacking medical personnel and facilities by conducting airstrikes,” it said. Karen Koning AbuZayd, a panel member, said: “Women, men and children that we interviewed faced the ghastly choice of being bombarded or fleeing deeper into HTS-controlled areas where there are rampant abuses of human rights… “The acts by HTS members amount to war crimes.”
Fathi Al-Marimi, advisor to the speaker of the eastern-based parliament in Libya Aguila Saleh, told Al-Arabiya on Monday that the Libyan people "will not let Turkey fulfil its ambitions" in the war-torn country. Al-Marimi pointed out that the "Turkish intervention" in Libya took place following a deal with Fayez Al-Sarraj s government, adding the intervention has three objectives that serve the interests of Turkey, not those of the Libyan people. The objectives, said Al-Marimi, include "stealing the money and wealths of the Libyan people amid the Turkish economy s decline and retreat and currency s collapse,... redrawing borders... (and) taking a share of the Mediterranean waters that it [Turkey] does not deserve." He viewed the visit of Turkey s Defence Minister Hulusi Akar to Tripoli and meetings with his troops in Libya as a "blatant interference" in Libya s internal affairs. Akar and the Chief of the General Staff Yasar Guler visited Libya on Friday to discuss activities carried out within the scope of the "memorandum of understanding on security and military cooperation,” which was signed last year. After Akar s visit to Libya, Turkey agreed with Al-Sarraj to establish new training centres for militias in western Libya. The Government of National Accord (GNA), which is based in Tripoli, is backed by Turkish troops and thousands of Syrian mercenaries in its war against the eastern-based Libyan National Army (LNA) and its leader Khalifa Haftar. Al-Marimi called on the international community to stop the Turkish intervention that violates international norms and laws. He stressed that the Libyan parliament and people back Egypt s position on Libya as they oppose "the Turkish attempt to occupy Libya" and their attempts to threaten the red line of Sirte-Jufra. Last month, Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi said Egypt has a legitimate right to intervene in Libya and ordered the army to be prepared to carry out any mission outside the country if necessary. He added any intervention by Egypt would mainly be aimed at protecting Egypt s western border, achieving a ceasefire, and restoring stability and peace in Libya, stressing that crossing the Sirte-Jufra frontline is a “red line” for Egypt. Al-Marimi revealed that Russia promised to step in -- through its permanent membership in the UN Security Council -- to solve the Libyan crisis and expressed its willingness to open an embassy in Libya, though it will be based in Tunisia, and a consulate in Benghazi. These developments came during Aguila Saleh s visit to Moscow last week. According to Al-Marimi, Saleh will also visit Switzerland and Italy to explain the ongoing situation in Libya. Meanwhile, sources told Al-Arabiya on Monday that Turkish intelligence officials were wounded following the LNA air strikes on Al-Watiya air base on Sunday, which was recently captured by the GNA and its Turkish backers. The wounded were transferred to hospitals in Tripoli and Turkey. Brigadier-General Khaled Al-Mahgoub, an LNA leading commander, told Al-Arabiya that similar strikes on Al-Watiya will soon take place. Al-Mahgoub also said that Turkish radars, military equipment and air defence systems were destroyed during the air strikes. Turkey, according to sources who spoke to Reuters in June, is negotiating the establishment of two bases -- including one at Watiya -- with the GNA. Al-Watiya is western Libya s most significant air base.
Turkey s military occupation of Libya is escalating through the use of advanced, dangerous weapons, said the Libyan National Army s (LNA) Commander Khalifa Haftar, who added that the leader of the Government of National Accord Fayez al-Sarraj is working with them to destabilize the country s southern region. The LNA is safely controlling and securing Southern and Eastern Libya, Libyan TV channel Al-Hadath quoted Haftar in his phone call to UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres, and added that Western Libya is still under threat of terrorist group and militias. Turkish Minister of Defense Hulusi Akar signed a military agreement with Sarraj to establish a Turkish military base in Libya, according to media reports. Libyan commander Khaled al-Mahgoub stated that this agreement seeks control over Libya s oil fields and to penetrate the red line areas adjacent to Egypt s borders. Italy meanwhile pledged to ensure that the ban on the transfer of weapons to Libya is among the tasks carried out by the EU s Naval Force Mediterranean Operation IRINI. The IRINI is an EU military operation under the umbrella of the Common Security and Defense Policy, launched in March to enforce the UN s arms embargo to Libya. Egypt launched in June a new plan to resolve the Libyan crisis dubbed the “Cairo Declaration”, expressing a firm desire to enforce the Libyan people s wish goals of stability and development, to preserve the country s sovereignty and to put its interests first and foremost. Egypt s plan will respect all international efforts to resolve the Libyan crisis thus far and includes a 48-hour ceasefire throughout Libyan territories, dismantling militias and handing their weapons over to the LNA, expelling foreign mercenaries out of the country, and resuming the 5+5 Libyan Joint Military Commission under the auspices of the UN.
In his last speech, president Abdul Fattah al-Sisi called on the Egyptian people to be as brave and powerful as lions and work hard each in his position. He added that this way Egypt would be so powerful as great lion that nobody can threaten. I remembered this story that my mother used to tell me. The story says a great lion woke up to see a small mouse falling on his leg. The lion grew angry and decided to kill