Jerusalem at top of agenda as Turkish president to meet pope

Erdogan says that as head of group representing world’s 1.7 billion Muslims, his country is a decisive element, warns US is alone in recognizing Israeli capital

President of Turkey and leader of the Justice and Development Party (AK Party) Recep Tayyip Erdogan delivers a speech during the party's group meeting at the Grand National Assembly of Turkey (TBMM), in Ankara, on January 30, 2018. (DEM ALTAN/AFP)
President of Turkey and leader of the Justice and Development Party (AK Party) Recep Tayyip Erdogan delivers a speech during the party's group meeting at the Grand National Assembly of Turkey (TBMM), in Ankara, on January 30, 2018. (DEM ALTAN/AFP)

ISTANBUL — Turkey’s president set off Sunday on his way to Italy to meet Pope Francis at the Vatican, where the status of Jerusalem is expected to top their agenda.

President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said before leaving Turkey on Sunday that the United States is “alone” in the Trump administration’s decision to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital.

Erdogan said Turkey leads 1.7 billion Muslims worldwide, since the country currently holds the term presidency of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation summit, with its 57 Muslim states, and the pope is “number one” among Catholics.

“These two important blocks are in fact decisive elements in this region,” Erdogan noted, while emphasizing Jerusalem’s importance to several world religions.

Syria, the migrant crisis, Islamophobia, and racism also are on Francis and Erdogan’s discussion list.

Erdogan is scheduled to also meet Italy’s president and prime minister.

The Argentine pontiff strongly opposed US President Donald Trump’s controversial move to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, and the American plans to move the US embassy there from Tel Aviv. He has urged that the status quo of the city be preserved.

Pope Francis, after leading a holy mass in St Peter’s Basilica at the Vatican to mark the Feast of the Presentation of the Lord, on February 2, 2018. (Vincenzo PINTO/AFP)

In an address on December 6, 2017, from the White House, Trump defied worldwide warnings and insisted that after repeated failures to achieve peace, a new approach was long overdue, describing his decision to recognize Jerusalem as the seat of Israel’s government as merely based on reality.

The move was hailed by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and by leaders across much of the Israeli political spectrum. Trump stressed that he was not specifying the boundaries of Israeli sovereignty in the city, and called for no change in the status quo at the city’s holy sites.

Erdogan responded by calling an emergency meeting of the OIC that Turkey hosted in Istanbul. He also spoke by phone with the pope at the time.

In its final statement, the OIC summit declared “East Jerusalem as the capital of the State of Palestine” and invited “all countries to recognize the State of Palestine and East Jerusalem as its occupied capital.”

They declared Trump’s decision “null and void legally” and “a deliberate undermining of all peace efforts” that would give impetus to “extremism and terrorism.”

They also said Trump’s move was “an announcement of the US administration’s withdrawal from its role as sponsor of peace” in the Middle East, echoing Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas.

Since then, relations between the US and the Palestinians have deteriorated with the US cutting off funding for UNRWA, the main United Nations organization that deals with Palestinian welfare and humanitarian issues.

Last week, Hebrew media reported that the US State Department, having already frozen some $100 million in UNRWA funding, was considering stopping all of its $360-million annual funding for the organization, and instead allocating it to other UN bodies that work with the Palestinians.

Turkish troops wait near the Syrian border at Hassa, in Hatay province, on January 24, 2018. (OZAN KOSE/ AFP)

Jerusalem’s status is perhaps the most sensitive issue in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Israel sees the entire city as its undivided capital, while the Palestinians want the eastern sector, which the international community regards as unlawfully annexed by Israel, as the capital of their future state.

The Ankara government has also found itself confronting Washington in another conflict, after it invaded northern Syrian last month in a military operation to clear US-back Kurdish militias from areas near its border.

Turkey on January 20 launched the “Olive Branch” operation in the northern Syrian region of Afrin, fighting Syrian Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) militia, which Ankara sees as a terror group.

With the YPG a key ally of Washington in the battle against jihadists, the campaign has seen a fellow NATO partner of the United States fighting an openly US-backed and US-armed force.

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