Jewish umbrella group slams Erdogan for vowing to ‘liberate al-Aqsa’

Conference of Presidents says Turkish leader’s statements at ceremony marking Hagia Sofia’s reopening as a mosque were incendiary and offensive

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan talks during a televised address to the nation in Istanbul, on May 11, 2020. (Presidential Press Service via AP, Pool)
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan talks during a televised address to the nation in Istanbul, on May 11, 2020. (Presidential Press Service via AP, Pool)

The Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations on Tuesday condemned Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s comment that his decision to turn Istanbul’s Hagia Sofia back into a mosque was a precursor to the “liberation” of the Al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem.

“We are appalled by the incendiary and offensive statement made by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan… implying that he seeks to take control of the holy sites in Jerusalem’s Old City, which is home to the al-Aqsa Mosque,” the umbrella group representing 53 Jewish organizations said in a statement.

Last Friday, Erdogan formally announced that Istanbul’s sixth-century iconic Hagia Sophia would be reconverted into a mosque and declared it open to Muslim worship, hours after a high court annulled a 1934 decision that had turned it into a museum.

According to the pro-government Turkish daily, Yeni Şafak, the Turkish leader then said that “the resurrection of Hagia Sophia was the harbinger of the liberation of the Al-Aqsa Mosque, and footsteps of Muslims’ will to leave hard days behind.”

A woman poses for a picture in front of Hagia Sophia in Istanbul on July 11, 2020 (Ozan Kose/AFP)

The Conference of Presidents said: “This outrageous rhetoric regarding the al-Aqsa Mosque can and has incited violence against Israel and its citizens — and will add to tensions in the region. We condemn it strongly and urge President Erdogan to recant his inflammatory words and actions.”

Jerusalem was under the authority of the Ottoman Empire, the forerunner of the Republic of Turkey, until 1917 when it was captured by the British during World War I. Erdogan, an Islamist, has frequently railed at Israel in regard to the al-Aqsa Mosque. The mosque, the third holiest shrine in Islam, sits atop the Temple Mount, the holiest place in Jerusalem as the site of the two biblical temples.

The decision to reconvert Hagia Sophia — a former cathedral that was turned into a mosque after Istanbul’s conquest by the Ottoman Empire and had served as a museum for 86 years — sparked deep dismay among Orthodox Christians.

Turkey’s high administrative court threw its weight behind a petition brought by a religious group and annulled the 1934 cabinet decision that turned the site into a museum. Within hours, Erdogan signed a decree handing over Hagia Sophia to Turkey’s Religious Affairs Presidency.

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