Turkey’s top Islamic cleric takes center stage, annoying secularists

  • Erbas gave a sermon at the converted Hagia Sophia Mosque
  • Religious organization Diyanet gained more funding and influence
  • Critics say Erdogan is using religion to bolster waning support

ISTANBUL, Sept. 22 (Reuters) – When President Tayyip Erdogan opened a new court complex this month, the senior Turkish cleric sealed the ceremony with a Muslim prayer, triggering protests from critics who said his actions violated to the secular constitution.

“May this wonderful work be beneficial and blessed for our nation, my God,” Ali Erbas said in his speech, adding that many judges had “worked to deliver the righteousness that (God) has ordered”.

Erbas’s appearance at the September 1 ceremony in Ankara and wave of opposition criticism over his comments reflect his growing profile as head of a state-run religious organization and influence growing that it acquired under Erdogan.

The president, whose ruling AK party is rooted in political Islam, rolled back decades-long restrictions on religion by the founder of modern Turkey, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, placing Islam at the center of political life .

Last year, Erbas delivered the first sermon at Hagia Sophia in Istanbul after the Byzantine church turned into a museum was converted into a mosque. He did this while holding a sword, claiming that it was the tradition of preachers in mosques taken by conquest. The church was captured by Ottoman forces in 1453.

Its state organization Diyanet, or Directorate of Religious Affairs, has its own television station which is recruiting 30 new employees. Its budget, which already matches that of an average ministry, will increase by a quarter next year to 16.1 billion lire ($ 1.86 billion), according to government data.

Erdogan further backed Erbas last week by extending his tenure in Diyanet. He was again with Erdogan on Monday in New York, reciting a prayer at the opening of a skyscraper that will house Turkish diplomats based there.

Erdogan’s political enemies say Erbas’s growing profile is at odds with the secular constitution of the Republic of Turkey and shows the president is using religion to boost his declining ratings ahead of the elections slated for 2023.

“It is totally unacceptable that the Directorate of Religious Affairs is used politically by the AKP,” said Bahadir Erdem, vice-chairman of the opposition Iyi party.


“The reason Ali Erbas repeatedly makes statements that polarize the nation is very clearly that the government is using the religious sensibilities of those whom it thinks can win the votes,” he said.

In addition to the growing importance of Diyanet, lay people are also worried about a sharp increase in “Imam Hatip” religious schools, a 10% increase in the number of mosques in the last decade, the lifting of the ban on the Muslim headscarf in state institutions and the taming of powerful military Turkey, once a stronghold of secularism, throughout Erdogan’s reign.

Responding to criticism of the Diyanet, the presidency shared a photo of Ataturk standing in prayer next to a Muslim cleric during a ceremony outside Turkey’s new parliament 100 years ago, suggesting that even the republic’s founder secularism has made room for religion alongside politics.

The main secular opposition party, the Republican People’s Party (CHP), accuses Erdogan of deliberately using Erbas to distract public attention from Turkey’s growing economic woes.

“He put the chairman of the Directorate of Religious Affairs on the ground like a pawn,” CHP spokesman Faik Oztrak said.

The Turkish constitution stipulates that the Diyanet must act in accordance with the principles of secularism, without expressing political opinions.

Erbas, a former theology professor who took office in 2017, did not respond directly to criticism, but said his role was limited to religious guidance.

“In accordance with the duty set out in the constitution to ‘enlighten society on religion’, our leadership strives to convey to our people in the most correct way the principles of Islam,” he said in a speech last week.

This message does not reassure secular critics.

Erbas’s frequent presence alongside Erdogan reveals a “very significant rise in the role of Sunni Islam in government in Turkey,” said Soner Cagaptay, director of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

“The 20th century secular firewall, established by Atatürk and guarded by his successors, which separated religion and government, and religion and education, has completely collapsed,” he said.

Erbas has courted controversy in the past. Last year, his suggestion that homosexuality causes the disease sparked a clash between Erdogan’s AKP and Turkish lawyer associations over free speech.

But he won the support of Erdogan’s nationalist ally, Devlet Bahceli.

“Turkey is a Muslim country,” he said. “The allergy against the Islamic religion of these wicked who severed ties with our national and spiritual values ​​is an incurable clinical case.”

Reporting by Daren Butler; Editing by Dominic Evans and Gareth Jones

Our Standards: Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.

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