ANKARA (AFP) — A Turkish regional governor was accused Monday of inciting hatred towards the country’s Jewish community after suggesting a synagogue be turned into a museum as a reprisal for Israel’s policies over the Al-Aqsa mosque in Jerusalem.
Dursun Ali Sahin, governor of the northwestern province of Edirne, sparked an outcry when he said Friday that the ancient Buyuk Sinagog (the Great Synagogue) built in 1907 under Ottoman Sultan Abdul Hamid should only be used as a museum.
“While those bandits blow the winds of war and massacre people inside Al-Aqsa mosque, we are restoring their synagogues,” Sahin said.
“I say this with a huge hatred inside me. We clean the surroundings of their (Jewish) cemeteries and send their projects to committees. The synagogue here… will only be registered as a museum.”
After an outcry, Sahin backpedaled and said the final decision on its future would lie with the government agency for historical heritage, the General Directorate of Foundations.
A far-right Jewish campaign for prayer rights at the Al-Aqsa compound in Jerusalem has angered Palestinians and inflamed sentiment across the Muslim world. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has repeatedly denied any plans to alter the status quo, which prohibits Jews from worshiping at the site.
The synagogue in Turkey — which served the Jewish community in Edirne until 1983 and a few years later suffered a roof collapse — is being restored as an active place of worship.
“Edirne governor Dursun Ali Sahin must immediately step down after delivering a speech clearly instilling hatred and animosity,” Turkey’s Human Rights Association said in a statement.
“If he does not resign, he should be dismissed from his position and face a legal action. If not, the Turkish Republic will also be an accomplice to this crime,” it added.
The Jewish Community of Turkey and the Office of the Chief Rabbi said in a joint statement they were “concerned over such a statement expressed by a governor who represents the state.”
Aykan Erdemir, lawmaker of the main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP), told AFP that the governor’s U-turn was not enough and he should resign.
“The mental state of an official using such expressions is not appropriate to work at a government office,” he told AFP, saying if the government did not sack him it would be condoning anti-Semitism.
“Yes, he made a U-turn but what is important is if he is going to make a U-turn on his hatred, prejudices and anti-Semitic attitudes developed in his subconscious.”
The General Directorate of Foundations insisted the synagogue would not be turned into a museum.
“We intend to keep the building as a house of worship to serve all visitors,” the agency’s general director Adnan Ertem told the official Anatolia news agency.
Turning a religious building into a full museum in Turkey robs it of its status as a place of worship.
The most notable example is the Hagia Sophia in Istanbul which served as a church in the Byzantine Empire, was converted to a mosque after the Ottoman conquest of Constantinople and was turned into a museum for all in the 1930s.
Ertem said the synagogue, which has been under restoration on a budget of 3.7 million lira (1.3 million euro) since 2010, would serve a dual purpose both as a place of worship and museum like the Blue Mosque in Istanbul.
Turkey’s tiny Jewish community now numbers less than 20,000, many of whom trace their ancestry back to Jews who took refuge in Turkey in the 15th century following their expulsion from Spain.
The ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) is hugely sensitive to charges of anti-Semitism after President Recep Tayyip Erdogan was accused of prejudice against Jews for his incendiary rhetoric against Israel during its latest bombardment of Gaza.
Erdogan has always insisted he is a friend of Turkey’s Jewish community and warned opponents not to mistake his criticism of Israeli policies for anti-Semitism.
Last week, Erdogan accused Israel of attacking the Al-Aqsa mosque and said this was tantamount to an attack on Turkey.