Turkey’s top cleric has been attacked for comments deemed offensive to the modern republic’s founder, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, during a sermon at İstanbul’s iconic Hagia Sophia, which has been reconverted to a mosque, AFP reported.
Ali Erbaş, head of the top religious body known as the Diyanet, presided over prayers on Friday at a service attended by President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and thousands of others.
The prayers followed a court ruling to annul a 1934 decree making Hagia Sophia a museum under the new republic born from the ashes of the Ottoman Empire.
Hagia Sophia was built as a cathedral during the Christian Byzantine Empire in the sixth century. It was converted into a mosque after the Ottoman conquest of Constantinople in 1453.
But Erdoğan signed a decree this month handing the building’s control to the Diyanet so that it can operate as a mosque, a move that sparked criticism from the West.
In his Friday sermon Erbaş said, “Sultan Mehmet the Conqueror endowed and entrusted this outstanding place of worship as the apple of his eye to believers on condition that it should remain a mosque until the last day.
“Any property that is endowed is inviolable in our belief and burns whoever touches it; the charter of the endower is indispensable and whoever infringes upon it is cursed.
“Therefore, from that day to the present, Hagia Sophia has been the sanctuary of not only our country but also of Prophet Muhammad’s ummah,” Erbaş added, referring to the Muslim community.
Opposition parties denounced Erbaş, saying his comments clearly targeted Atatürk.
Özgür Özel of the main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) said, “You cannot curse Atatürk while you sit at the chair of Diyanet founded by Atatürk.”
“Ali Erbaş, I swear that you will pay the price for damning Atatürk,” Özel said on Twitter.
The right-wing İYİ (Good) Party on Monday lodged a complaint against Erbaş, accusing him of “violating the untouchable articles of the Turkish constitution.”
On social media the hashtag “Ali Erbaş, know your place” was a trending topic.
The Turkish government has long been accused by its secular opponents of forcing Islamic values on the predominantly Muslim but strictly secular country.
Erbaş however denied the claims, in an interview with the Hürriyet daily.
“I referred to the future, not to the past,” he said. “Atatürk died 82 years ago. Prayers are said for anyone who dies, not curses.”