Week of July 6

People pray outside the Hagia Sophia museum in Istanbul on July 10, 2020 after the monument’s status as a museum was turned back into a mosque. Credit: AFP

Turkish courts recently began a trial of 20 Saudi nationals in the killing of Jamal Khashoggi. Khashoggi, a Washington Post journalist, was murdered at the Saudi Consulate in the Levent business district of Istanbul on October 2, 2018, after entering to receive documents in order to marry his Turkish fiancee, Hatice Cengiz. The 20 Saudi defendants are being tried in absentia, as Saudi Arabia has refused Turkish extradition requests. The trial comes after the December 2019 Saudi trial of Khashoggi’s murder, in which 11 men were prosecuted. However, the trial was considered opaque by the international community. Many Western nations have recently imposed sanctions on Saudi Arabia for the killing of Khashoggi, yet many continue to sell weapons to Saudi Arabia for use in the Yemen conflict. Staff who worked at the consulate have come forward with testimonies of what happened on October 2nd, including one technical worker stating “there were five or six people there. They stopped me from coming through the three entrances. They asked me to light up the tandoor (oven). There was an atmosphere of panic.”

Interior photo of the Hagia Sofia features adjacent Christian and Islamic emellishments. A museum since the end of the Ottoman Empire, the UNESCO heritage site has been a museum for decades but it will now be reverted to an active mosque. Credit: Megan Geissler

Also in Turkey, on July 10, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan declared that Hagia Sophia would reverted back to a functioning mosque. Before it became a mosque in 1453 after the Ottoman conquest of Istanbul, the building had been a Byzantine cathedral for 900 years. Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the founder of Turkey, declared the structure a museum in 1935 as part of sweeping secular reforms and the UN subsequently declared it a UNESCO heritage site. Top Turkish courts declared Ataturk’s actions illegal, stating “the settlement deed allocated it as a mosque and its use outside this character is not possible legally.” The ruling has largely been seen as politically motivated by Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP). Erdogan plans to open Hagia Sophia for prayer on July 15th, the four-year anniversary of the failed coup. The recent ruling has drawn sustained criticism from the Russian Orthodox Church and UNESCO, and the UNESCO body expressed frustration with lack of dialogue in making the decision. Greece condemned the decision and said it would have repercussions on relations between the two countries. At a time of increased Greece-Turkey tensions due to the refugee crisis, the Turkish ruling could adversely impact relations between Turkey and the EU. Pope Francis additionally expressed dismay over the decision.

In a statement, Erdogan expressed that the management of Hagia Sophia would be transferred to the Religious Affairs Directorate, after being under the management of the Ministry of Culture since 1935. In a statement given a few days after the decision, Mevlüt Çavusoglu, Turkey’s Minister of Foreign Affairs, affirmed that further steps would be communicated to UNESCO. Cavusoglu expressed, “we have to protect our ancestors’ heritage. The function can be this way or that way — it does not matter.”

Also on Saturday, Middle East Eye reported that over 700 people in two refugee camps in northeast Syria have recently died amid a lack of food and medicine, according to the UN counterterrorism chief who cited information received by his office. The two camps – al-Hol and Roj –  are home to more than 70,000 people combined, many of them women and children linked to Islamic State fighters. Vladimir Vorontsov said the camps were in “very dire condition,” and warned that the recent fatalities, which included children, died of a “lack of medicine, lack of food.” Both camps are overseen by Kurdish-directed forces that, with U.S. support, led the fight against Islamic State. Vorontsov did not clarify when the 700 had died or specify the source of the information but the child mortality rate in the overcrowded camps is high, according to aid groups. There haven’t been any reports of coronavirus at the camps, but it would be difficult to contain an outbreak because of the overcrowded, squalid living conditions and lack of infrastructure. Following the first reported case in the northeast region, the Kurdish Red Crescent set up a specialised hospital, based outside the city of Hasakah, with 120 beds. The UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) has also built an isolation unit outside the al-Hol camp, with a capacity for 80 beds. For more information on the thread of Covid-19 to residents of al-Hol camp, you can read this blog post from Refugees International.

In Egypt, survivors of alleged sexual harassment and assault have rallied together on social media against the accused perpetrator, leading to his arrest on Saturday. A flood of accusations against the 21-year-old university student who attended some of the country’s most exclusive schools poured out on social media in the past week after dozens of women posted detailed allegations of sexual harassment and assault. Within days, an Instagram page set up to expose him identified 93 credible accusers, some as young as 13, according to the campaign organizers. Three days after the Instagram page went up, Cairo police arrested the student, Ahmed Bassam Zaki, at his home in an upscale suburb. The swift and public action notable because sexual harassment and assault are common in the country, and victims are unlikely to report incidents due to shame and high likelihood of being blamed for the attacks.

Instagram account that helped lead to the arrest of a university student accused of widespread sexual harrassment and abuse in Egypt and beyond.

The accusers have received significant support for exposing Zaki’s actions, which has encouraged other victims of abuse to come forward. The state-run National Council for Women said it had received over 400 complaints involving various forms of violence against women. Scholars at Al Azhar, the ancient center of Sunni Islamic scholarship, took their side too, issuing a statement encouraging women to testify about sexual assault and rejecting any suggestion that their dress or behavior was to blame. “It’s a message to the community that we need to change our culture,” said Ahmed Barakat, a spokesman for Al Azhar. “In Eastern culture, some victims are afraid to speak out because they feel shame. We need to push them forward.” The criminal case against Zaki centers on accusations of rape, blackmail and indecent assault by six women, according to the prosecutor general. He is also being investigated for crimes in Spain where he transferred to another university to evade his Egyptian accusers.

Finally, Jordan is trying to use coronavirus restrictions to curb its alarmingly high smoking rates. On June 23, research from the World Health Organization and Jordan Ministry of Health revealed that Jordan had surpassed Indonesia as the country with the highest smoking rates in the world. About 66% of Jordanian men and 17% of Jordanian women are smokers. King Abdullah II passed a bill in 2008 that banned smoking in public places, but law enforcement failed to enforce or publicize the law. Currently, the kingdom bans smoking in closed places but smoking continues to define a large part of Jordanian culture, especially masculine culture, and cigarette prices remain low. The Jordanian government faces a lot of opposition as it tries to remedy the health habits of its smoking population. 

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