In the aftermath of the Beirut explosion on 4 August, fingers immediately pointed to the Lebanese Shia group Hizbullah. The theory was that the explosion was a message to Lebanese Future Movement leader Saad Al-Hariri ahead of the International Court of Justice (ICJ) announcement of its verdict in the case of the assassination of former prime minister Rafik Al-Hariri in which four Hizbullah members are being tried in absentia. In some versions of the theory, Hizbullah had been smuggling explosive substances through the port of Beirut. In others, Hizbullah had kept the substances in storage for use in the next war with Israel or, alternatively, Israel had bombed the highly explosive ammonium nitrate as a means to get at Hizbullah. Such conjectures have since given way to the semi-official version, which maintains that sparks from nearby welding works ignited the 2,700 tons of ammonium nitrate that have been housed in the port for several years. But even so Hizbullah still remains in the public gaze. The group is widely seen as being responsible for the deterioration that has brought Lebanon to its present state. Even before the explosion and as the Lebanese economy plunged deeper into crisis, there was mounting criticism of Hizbullah militias. But the explosion focused popular anger on the Shia militant group more intensely than ever before, especially after the Lebanese 14 March Alliance started to mobilise its supporters to demand the fall of the current government, which is perceived as being Hizbullah-controlled. Hizbullah Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah has denied allegations that the group controlled the port or stored weapons and ammunition there. “We do not operate or control the port. We do not intervene in its management. We do not know what happens or what exists there,” he said. Nasrallah demanded a fair and transparent investigation of what had taken place and appealed for a united front and cool-headedness in response to what he described as an “exceptional event in modern Lebanese history” that should not be politicised. While its management falls under the office of the president, currently Michel Aoun who is a Hizbullah ally, the Beirut port, like other national facilities, “is subject to the influence of the political forces, and this is determined by numerous factors,” an informed Lebanese source told Al-Ahram Weekly. “Basic government services and facilities are apportioned among the political forces. The port cannot be said to be controlled by any particular party by tradition. However, it is currently under the influence of the Free Patriotic Movement (FPM), given that Aoun is president.” Aoun founded the FPM in 1994. “According to the available information,” the source continued, “Hizbullah does not exercise any exceptional influence over the port, in contrast to Beirut airport, which is situated near the predominantly Shia Dahieh district south of Beirut.” Hizbullah has long exercised control over the airport, which the political party/militant organisation has designated as a red line. Defending that red line was one of the reasons it launched its takeover of Beirut on 7 May 2008 following the dismissal of the Hizbullah-affiliated security director at the airport. According to the source, the very location of the seaport in Beirut limits Hizbullah’s ability to assert its control over it and use it towards its own ends. “For one thing, it is adjacent to Christian and Sunni neighbourhoods. For another, the Mediterranean teems with US and Israeli warships that inspect any vessel suspected of transporting military equipment or substances to Hizbullah,” he said. “Hizbullah also has several ports in the south in predominantly Shia areas. More importantly, it relies on the land route from Syria, out of sight of western fleets, to obtain its needs.” Would Hizbullah agree to relinquish its arms in order to bring Lebanon back from the brink of collapse? “If forced to choose between a Lebanon reduced to famine and giving up its arms, it would choose famine,” the source said. “But this doesn’t mean that Hizbullah would not be open to making concessions. It knows as well as anyone else that Lebanon cannot survive the current crisis without international support. An indication of this awareness was seen in its positive reception of French President Emmanuel Macron’s recent visit.” The Lebanese press reported that Macron, during his meeting with political party representatives at the French embassy during his visit to Lebanon, had had a separate conversation with MP Mohamed Raad, the head of the Hizbullah parliamentary group. Hizbullah sources have refused to divulge the substance of the conversation, which reportedly lasted several minutes. The Lebanese Al-Akhbar newspaper described this as the first meeting between the French president and an official from Hizbullah, which Washington has designated as a terrorist organisation. The Al-Jumhuriya newspaper reported that Raad had said that “we have no problem with regard to speaking to each other. The problem is that we do not carry out what we agree on. The proof is that we signed the Taif Accord, but we have not implemented it.” Raad was also reported to have described the French president’s propositions concerning what needed to be done in Lebanon as “realistic”. The Hizbullah MP underscored the need to reinforce Lebanon and to preserve its strong points, “especially the power of the resistance that compensated for the inability of the state to fight for liberation, just as French freedom fighters did during the Nazi occupation” of France, he said, as quoted in Al-Akhbar. It was also reported that Hizbullah had asked Iran to erase a tweet by the secretary of the Iranian Expediency Discernment Council, an Iranian government organisation, Mohsen Rezaee, criticising Macron’s visit to Beirut in the aftermath of the explosion. Hizbullah realises that Macron’s visit extended a last hope to salvage the Lebanese economy, and it wants it to succeed while having to make as few concessions as possible. It appears that the conditions the French president made in order to martial international aid do not include the immediate disarmament of Hizbullah. However, they do include assurances of Lebanon’s “neutrality.” This is shorthand for the need for Hizbullah to refrain from intervening in the affairs of Lebanon’s neighbours and to cease its military adventures, already a tall order for the militant organisation. According to some reports, Macron suggested deferring the question of Hizbullah’s arms until after the US and Iran had reached a new agreement over the Iranian nuclear programme. But while Macron’s proposal may be more consistent with Lebanese realities, it is unlikely to be acceptable to the US and Saudi Arabia, which both want to disarm Hizbullah and oppose keeping the question of Hizbullah’s control over the Lebanese state up in the air. Aware of the potential resistance from Washington, Macron told US President Donald Trump that US sanctions against Hizbullah were counterproductive and that they only served to strengthen the very parties they sought to weaken. On the eve of the international donors conference to support Lebanon, an Élysée Palace official said that Macron had told Trump by telephone that the US needed to “reinvest” in Lebanon in order to help with reconstruction. The French official added that his government believed there was sufficient evidence to presume that the explosion in the Beirut port was an accident. German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas was equally concerned over the precarious situation in Lebanon and cautioned against attempts to destabilise Lebanon and to exploit the crisis to pave the way for increased foreign influence. In remarks to the press, Maas spoke of “non-government agents” funded from abroad, such as Hizbullah, that could exploit the political and security vacuum in Lebanon. The international donors conference was hosted by Paris on Sunday by video to secure pledges of financial support from participants and to discuss how to distribute aid in ways that reach its intended beneficiaries directly, rather than passing through the hands of corrupt officials. Due to the urgency of the aid, it appears that European donors at least will not broach the question of Hizbullah’s arms and instead will focus on the fight against corruption, the need to empower Lebanese civil society and the need to hold new elections. None of these issues present an immediate threat to Hizbullah’s influence. The group has extensive intelligence expertise, and it can continue to pursue its security and military activities despite a degree of foreign monitoring and plans to combat corruption. Indeed, a not insignificant portion of civil society activists in Lebanon are close to Hizbullah. Ultimately, whatever concessions Hizbullah makes in order to ensure the arrival of Western funding, it is unlikely to lose much of its influence over the Lebanese state and society.
BEIRUT (Reuters) — Angry Lebanese said the government’s resignation on Monday did not come near to addressing the tragedy of last week’s Beirut explosion and demanded the removal of what they see as a corrupt ruling class to blame for the country’s woes. A protest with the slogan “Bury the authorities first” was planned near the port, where highly explosive material stored for years detonated on Aug. 4, killing at least 163 people, injuring 6,000 and leaving hundreds of thousands homeless. Prime Minister Hassan Diab, announcing his cabinet’s resignation, blamed endemic graft for the explosion, the biggest in Beirut’s history and which compounded a deep financial crisis that has collapsed the currency, paralyzed the banking system and forced up prices. “I said before that corruption is rooted in every juncture of the state but I have discovered that corruption is greater than the state,” he said, blaming the political elite for blocking reforms. Talks with the International Monetary Fund have stalled amid a row between the government, banks and politicians over the scale of vast financial losses. “It does not end with the government’s resignation,” said the protest flyer circulating on social media. “There is still [President Michel] Aoun, [Parliament Speaker Nabih] Berri and the entire system.” For many Lebanese, the explosion was the last straw in a protracted crisis over the collapse of the economy, corruption, waste and dysfunctional government. The Beirut port mirrors the sectarian power system in which the same politicians have dominated the country since the 1975-90 civil war. Each factions has its quota of directors at the port, the nation’s main trade artery. “It’s a good thing that the government resigned. But we need new blood or it won’t work,” silversmith Avedis Anserlian told Reuters in front of his demolished shop. Aoun is required to consult with parliamentary blocs on who should be the next prime minister, and is obliged to designate the candidate with the most support. Forming a government amid factional rifts has been daunting in the past. Now with growing public discontent and the crushing financial crisis, it could be difficult to find someone willing to be prime minister. Meanwhile, residents of Beirut continued to pick up the pieces as search operations for those still missing went on. Officials have said the blast could have caused losses of US$15 billion, a bill Lebanon cannot pay. Ihsan Mokdad, a contractor, surveyed a gutted building in Gemmayze, a district a few hundreds meters from the port. “As the prime minister said, the corruption is bigger than the state. They’re all a bunch of crooks. I didn’t see one MP visit this area. MPs should have come here in large numbers to raise morale,” he said. ___ Reporting by Beirut bureau; Writing by Ghaida Ghantous; Editing by Giles ElgoodImage: A view of graffiti at the damaged port area in the aftermath of a massive explosion in Beirut, Lebanon August 11, 2020. REUTERS/Hannah McKay
BEIRUT (Reuters) — Lebanese called for protests outside Baabda palace on Monday to demand President Michel Aoun step down after a massive explosion that has ignited anti-government protests and resignations by several ministers, with the justice minister the latest to go. Last week s port warehouse detonation of more than 2,000 tons of ammonium nitrate killed 158 people, injured more than 6,000 and destroyed a swathe of the Mediterranean city, compounding months of political and economic meltdown and prompting furious calls for the entire government to step down. The cabinet, formed in January with the backing of the powerful Iran-backed Hezbollah group and its allies, was due to meet on Monday under pressure with many ministers wanting to resign, ministerial and political sources said. The information and environment ministers quit on Sunday as well as several lawmakers. The justice minister resigned on Monday, citing the catastrophic explosion. “The entire regime needs to change. It will make no difference if there is a new government,” Joe Haddad, an engineer, told Reuters. “We need quick elections.” Prime Minister Hassan Diab said on Saturday he would request early parliamentary elections. Aoun had previously said explosive material was stored unsafely for years at the port. He later said the investigation would consider whether the cause was external interference as well as negligence or an accident. Beirut s governor said many foreign workers and truck drivers remained missing and were assumed to be among the casualties, complicating efforts to identify the victims. Anti-government protests in the last two days have been the biggest since October when demonstrators took to the streets over an economic crisis rooted in corruption, waste and mismanagement. Protesters accused the political elite of exploiting state resources for their own benefit. Some Lebanese doubt change is possible in a country where sectarian politicians have dominated the country since the 1975-90 civil war. “It won t work, it s just the same people. It s a mafia,” said Antoinette Baaklini, an employee of an electricity company that was demolished in the blast. Workers picked up fallen masonry near the building where wall graffiti mocked Lebanon s chronic electricity crisis: “Everyone else in the world has electricity while we have a donkey.” “It will always be the same. It is just a political game, nothing will change,” said university student Marilyne Kassis. An emergency international donor conference on Sunday raised pledges worth nearly 253 million euros (US$298 million) for immediate humanitarian relief. But foreign countries demand transparency over how the aid is used, wary of writing blank checks to a government perceived by its own people as deeply corrupt. Some are concerned about the influence of Shi ite movement Hezbollah, which is designated as a terrorist group by the United States. Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Abbas Mousavi told a televised news conference on Monday that countries should refrain from politicizing the Beirut port blast. He called on the United States to lift sanctions against Lebanon.
BEIRUT (AP) — Lebanon s information minister resigned on Sunday as the country grapples with the aftermath of the devastating blast that ripped through the capital and raised public anger to new levels. The resignation comes as public anger is mounting against the ruling elite, blamed for the chronic mismanagement and corruption that is believed to be behind the explosion in a Beirut Port warehouse. Hundreds of tons of highly explosive material was stored in the waterfront hangar, and a blast sent a shock wave that killed at least 160 people, wounded nearly 6,000 and defaced the coastline of Beirut — destroying hundreds of buildings. Manal Abdel-Samad said in her resignation letter that change remained “elusive” and she regrets failing to fulfill the aspirations of the Lebanese people. “Given the magnitude of the catastrophe caused by the Beirut earthquake that shook the nation and hurt our hearts and minds, and in respect for the martyrs, and the pains of the wounded, missing and displaced, and in response to the public will for change, I resign from the government,” she wrote. The disaster fueled angry demonstrations Saturday where protesters set up gallows and nooses in central Beirut and held mock hanging sessions of cut-out cardboard images of top Lebanese officials. Demonstrators held signs that read “resign or hang.” The protests quickly turned violent when the demonstrators pelted stones at the security forces, who responded with heavy volleys of tear gas and rubber bullets. One police officer was killed and dozens of people were hurt in confrontations that lasted for hours. Protesters also fanned out around the city, storming a couple of government ministries. They briefly took over the foreign ministry, saying it will be the headquarters of their movement. In the economy and energy ministries, the protesters ransacked offices and seized public documents claiming they would reveal how corruption has permeated successive governments. Five of the parliament s 128 members have also announced their resignation since Saturday— including three legislators of the Christian Kataeb party, a member of the Socialist Progressive Party and an independent. Abdel-Samad s resignation comes amid reports that another government official — the environment minister — is expected to resign, adding to the challenges facing Prime Minister Hassan Diab. Diab took over in January and has since been beset by crises. The government, backed by the powerful militant Hezbollah group and its allies, announced it is defaulting on Lebanon s sovereign debt and has since been engaged in difficult, internally divisive talks with the International Monetary Fund for assistance. The coronavirus restrictions deepened the impact of the economic and financial crisis and fueled public anger against the new government. Lebanese have criticized Diab s government for being unable to tackle the challenges, saying it represents the deep-seated political class that has had a hold of the country s politics since the end of the civil war in 1990. Foreign Minister Nassif Hitti resigned even before the blast, citing an absence of “effective will to achieve comprehensive structural reform” and competing leadership. In a televised speech Saturday evening, Diab said the only solution was to hold early elections. He called on all political parties to put aside their disagreements and said he was prepared to stay in the post for two months to allow time for politicians to work on structural reforms. The offer is unlikely to soothe the escalating fury on the street. It is also expected to trigger lengthy discussions over the election law amid calls for introducing changes to the country s sectarian-based representation system. The information minister s resignation comes ahead of an international conference co-hosted by French President Emmanuel Macron and United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres aimed at bringing donors together to supply emergency aid and equipment to Lebanon. Previous offers of aid have been contingent on carrying out significant government reforms to tackle corruption.
BEIRUT (Reuters) — French President Emmanuel Macron called for urgent support for Lebanon where he arrived on Thursday, two days after a devastating blast ripped through Beirut, killing 145 people and generating a seismic shock that was felt across the region. Dozens are still missing after Tuesday s blast at the port that injured 5,000 people and left up to a quarter of a million without homes fit to live in, hammering a nation already reeling from economic meltdown and a surge in coronavirus cases. A security source said the death toll had reached 145, and officials said the figure was likely to rise. Macron, making the first visit by a foreign leader since the explosion, promised to help organize international aid for Lebanon but said its government must implement economic reforms and crack down on corruption. “If these reforms are not made, Lebanon will continue to suffer,” Macron said after being met by his Lebanese counterpart Michel Aoun at Beirut airport. At the port, destroyed by Tuesday s giant mushroom cloud and fireball, families gathered seeking news about the missing, amid public anger at the authorities for allowing highly explosive material to be stored there for years in unsafe conditions. “They will scapegoat somebody to defer responsibility,” said Rabee Azar, a 33-year-old construction worker, speaking near the smashed remains of the port s grain silo, surrounded by other mangled masonry and flattened buildings. Prime Minister Hassan Diab declared three days of mourning from Thursday after the most devastating explosion ever to hit the city that is still scarred by civil war three decades ago. With banks in crisis, a collapsing currency and one of the world s biggest debt burdens, Economy Minister Raoul Nehme said Lebanon had “very limited” resources to deal with the disaster, which by some estimates may have cost the nation up to US$15 billion. He said the country needed foreign aid. Demanding reform Offers of medical and other immediate aid have poured in, as officials have said hospitals, some heavily damaged in the blast, do not have enough beds and equipment. But Lebanon was already struggling to secure longer term, economic support. The government s failure to tackle a runaway budget, mounting debt and endemic corruption has prompted Western donors to demand reform. Gulf Arab states who once helped Lebanon have balked at bailing out a nation they say is increasingly influenced by their rival Iran. Lebanon s president blamed the explosion on 2,750 tons of ammonium nitrate, used in fertilizers and bombs, that had been stored for six years at the port after it was seized. He promised to investigate and hold those responsible to account. The government ordered some port officials to be put under house arrest. But ordinary Lebanese, who have lost jobs and watched savings evaporate in the financial crisis, blamed politicians in charge during decades of state corruption and bad governance. “Our leaders are crooks and liars. I don t believe any investigation they will do. They destroyed the country and they re still lying to the people. Who are they kidding?” said Jean Abi Hanna, 80, a retired port worker whose home was damaged and daughter and granddaughter injured in the blast. An official source familiar with preliminary investigations blamed the incident on “inaction and negligence”, saying “nothing was done” to remove hazardous material. All hell broke loose Some local media reported sightings of drones or planes flying in the area shortly before the explosion and some Beirut residents said they saw missiles fired. But officials have denied the incident was the result of any attack. A Lebanese security source said the initial blaze that sparked the explosion was caused by welding work. Veteran politician Walid Jumblatt, leader of Lebanon s Druze community, called for an international investigation, saying he had “no trust” in the government to find out the truth. The White House said the US government had still not ruled out the possibility that Tuesday s explosion was an attack. People who felt the explosive force said they had witnessed nothing comparable in years of conflict and upheaval in Beirut, which was devastated by the 1975-1990 civil war and since then has experienced big bomb attacks, unrest and a war with Israel. “First we heard one sound. Seconds later there was a big explosion. All hell broke loose,” said Ibrahim Zoobi, who works near the port. “I saw people thrown five or six meters.” Seismic tremors from the blast were recorded in Eilat on Israel s Red Sea coast, about 580 km (360 miles) away. Beirut Governor Marwan Abboud told Al Hadath TV total losses from the blast could reach $15 billion, including losses to businesses amid the broader fallout. Operations have been paralyzed at Beirut port, Lebanon s main route for imports needed to feed a nation of more than six million people, forcing ships to divert to smaller ports. The World Bank said it would work with Lebanon s partners to mobilize financing for reconstruction. But it was unclear whether this would affect Lebanon s difficult negotiations with the International Monetary Fund.
Three Egyptian nationals were killed in the massive warehouse explosion that hit the Lebanese capital, Beirut, on Tuesday, the Egyptian foreign ministry said in a statement on Wednesday. The Egyptian embassy in Lebanon will take all necessary measures to bring home the bodies of the three Egyptian victims, who have been identified as Ibrahim Abdel-Mohsen El-Qaffas, Aly Ismail Shehata and Roshdy Ahmed El-Gamal, the ministry said. A large blast at the city s port damaged buildings across the capital and sent a giant mushroom cloud into the sky, with Lebanese officials blaming a highly explosive material, ammonium nitrate, stored in a warehouse for six years. The explosion has killed at least 100 people and injured more than 4,000, according to Lebanon s Red Cross. The embassy said it would continue its efforts to ensure the safety of the Egyptian community in Lebanon and provide them with necessary assistance. An Egyptian field hospital in Beirut is providing assistance to the victims of the devastating blast, the ministry said earlier, adding that the facility started to receive a number of cases on Tuesday. The Egyptian embassy also announced that Egypt airlifted an aid package to Beirut on Wednesday. Egyptian officials have been in contact with the Lebanese side to identify their needs, it added. Earlier on Wednesday, Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi promised to provide full support to Lebanon during a phone call with his Lebanese counterpart Michel Aoun. “El-Sisi affirmed the solidarity of the government and people of Egypt with its brothers in Lebanon, and the willingness to harness all capabilities to assist and support Lebanon in its ordeal,” the Egyptian presidency said.
Two enormous explosions rocked Beirut s port on Tuesday, killing at least 50 people and wounding thousands, shaking distant buildings and leaving the Lebanese capital in fear and chaos. The deafening second blast sent an enormous orange fireball into the sky, flattened the harbourside and sent a tornado-like shockwave ripping through the city, shattering windows kilometres away. Bloodied casualties stumbled among debris and burning buildings across central Beirut as Health Minister Hamad Hassan reported an initial estimated toll of 50 dead and 3,000 injured, calling it "a disaster in every sense of the word". A soldier at the port told AFP: "It s a catastrophe inside. There are corpses on the ground." Relatives of people who worked inside the blast zone gathered at a security cordon as they scrambled for news of their loved ones. "Ambulances are still lifting the dead," the soldier said. The blasts were heard as far away as Nicosia on the eastern Mediterranean island of Cyprus, 240 kilometres (150 miles) away. Makrouhie Yerganian, a retired schoolteacher in her mid-70s who has lived near the port for decades, said it was "like an atomic bomb". "I ve experienced everything, but nothing like this before," even during the country s 1975-1990 civil war, she said. "All the buildings around here have collapsed. I m walking through glass and debris everywhere, in the dark." The country s Red Cross reported "hundreds of wounded" and called for urgent blood donations. The cause of the explosions was not immediately known but a top official, General Security chief Abbas Ibrahim, said confiscated explosive materials had been stored at the city s port. "It appears that there is a warehouse containing material that was confiscated years ago, and it appears that it was highly explosive material," he said. An Israeli government who requested anonymity told AFP: "Israel had nothing to do with the incident." Benjamin Strick, who works with investigations website Bellingcat, said on Twitter that the explosions appeared to have been centred on a 130-metre (420 foot)-long grey warehouse alongside a dock inside the port zone. Retired US nuclear scientist Cheryl Rofer wrote on Twitter that the "red cloud" of the massive blast was "very likely ammonium nitrate", a common agricultural fertiliser that is a highly explosive compound. Lebanon s President Michel Aoun called for "urgent" defence council talks, while Prime Minister Hasan Diab declared Wednesday a day of mourning. We saw the mushroom AFP video footage of the aftermath of the blasts showed areas of near-complete devastation, with cars flipped onto their roofs like children s toys, and warehouses flattened. Soldiers tried to clear the streets of dazed civilians, some of them drenched from head to toe in their own blood. Volunteers led stunned survivors away to seek medical help, using their shirts as makeshift bandages to staunch deep gashes on their faces and bodies. "We heard an explosion, then we saw the mushroom," said a Beirut resident who witnessed the second, deafening explosion from her balcony in the city s Mansourieh district. "The force of the blast threw us backwards into the apartment." An AFP correspondent at the scene minutes after the blast said every shop in the Hamra commercial district had sustained damage, with entire storefronts destroyed, windows shattered and many cars wrecked. Outside the Clemenceau Medical Centre, dozens of wounded people, many covered in blood, were rushing to be admitted to the centre, including children. A huge blaze sent up black smoke from the port area, as helicopters dumped water on burning buildings. A ship moored off the port was on fire. The port zone was cordoned off by the security forces, allowing access only to a string of ambulances, fire trucks with wailing sirens and relatives of workers who had been inside. Like an earthquake Hundreds immediately shared their shock and grief on social media. "Buildings are shaking," tweeted one resident, while another wrote: "An enormous, deafening explosion just engulfed Beirut. Heard it from miles away." Online footage from a Lebanese newspaper office showed blown out windows, scattered furniture and demolished interior panelling. The explosions hit a country already reeling from its worst economic crisis in decades which has left nearly half of the population in poverty, as well as the coronavirus pandemic. Lebanon s economy has collapsed in recent months, with the local currency plummeting, businesses closing en masse and poverty soaring at the same alarming rate as unemployment. The explosions also came three days before a UN tribunal s verdict on the murder of former Lebanese premier Rafic Hariri, killed in a huge 2005 truck bomb attack. Four alleged members of the Shiite Muslim movement Hezbollah are on trial in absentia at the court in The Hague over the huge Beirut bombing that killed Sunni billionaire Hariri and 21 other people. A woman in the city centre Tuesday told AFP the blast "felt like an earthquake" and "bigger than the explosion in the assassination of Rafic Hariri in 2005".
JERUSALEM (AP) — The Israeli military said it thwarted an infiltration attempt from Syria early Monday, likely killing four suspected militants it accused of trying to plant explosives. Lt. Col. Jonathan Conricus, a military spokesman, said Israeli troops earlier had been in ambush following “irregular” activity in the Golan Heights. Israeli troops opened fire on the suspected militants, some of whom were armed, after observing them placing the explosives on the ground, Conricus said. The Israeli military released video showing the four fleeing before disappearing in an explosion caused by the strike. The Israeli military has yet to determine if the four had ties to Iran or Hezbollah, two Syrian allies. However, Conricus said Israel held the Syrian government responsible for the incident. Syria s state-run SANA news agency did not immediately acknowledge the Israeli strike. Israel captured the Golan Heights from Syria in 1967 and later annexed the territory. The U.S. is the only country to have recognized Israel s annexation. The incident comes amid heightened tension on Israel s northern frontier following a recent Israeli airstrike that killed a Hezbollah fighter in Syria. Following the airstrike, the Israeli-controlled Golan Heights was hit by explosives fired from Syria and Israel responded by attacking Syrian military positions and beefing up its forces in the area. Israel has been bracing for further retaliation and last week it said it thwarted an infiltration attempt from Lebanon by Hezbollah militants, setting off one of the heaviest exchanges of fire along the volatile Israel-Lebanon frontier since a 2006 war between the bitter enemies. Israel considers Hezbollah to be its toughest and most immediate threat. Since battling Israel to a stalemate during a monthlong war in 2006, Hezbollah has gained more battlefield experience fighting alongside the Syrian government in that country s bloody civil war. After 40 years of calm, the Israel-Syrian frontier has heated up in recent years as Iran has tried to establish a military foothold on Israel s doorstep while helping Syrian President Bashar Assad in his country s yearslong war. Hezbollah also has aided Assad.
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.
Mina M. Azer
Dr. May Sabry, was chosen a member of the Scientific Advisory Board for Immunotherapy Medicine in London, which is one of the best research participants at the Center for Cell, Genetic and Tissue Therapy, University of London. She obtained a master s degree in molecular biological sciences and a PhD in cancer immunology from University College, London. She got a grant from the Citadel Foundation for a scholarship