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July 01, 2020

ISTANBUL (AP) — In its more than 1,400-year existence, the majestic domed structure of Hagia Sophia in Istanbul has served as the Byzantine Empire’s main cathedral, a mosque under the Ottoman Empire and a museum under modern Turkey, attracting millions of tourists each year.

The 6th-century building is now at the center of a heated debate between nationalist, conservative and religious groups who are pressing for it to be reconverted back into a mosque and those who believe the UNESCO World Heritage site should remain a museum, underscoring Istanbul’s status as a bridge between continents and cultures.

On Thursday, Turkey’s Council of State, the country’s highest administrative court, begins reviewing a request by a group devoted to reverting Hagia Sophia into a mosque. They are pressing to annul a 1934 decision by the Council of Ministers, led by secular Turkey’s founder Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, that turned the historic structure into a museum. A decision could come later Thursday or within two weeks, the state-run Anadolu Agency reported.

President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who leads an Islamic-oriented party, has previously spoken about possibly changing Hagia Sophia’s status to a mosque but has said his government would await the Council of State’s decision.

Analysts believe that Erdogan — a populist, polarizing leader who in nearly two decades in office has frequently blamed Turkey’s secular elites for the country’s problems — is using the Hagia Sophia debate to consolidate his conservative base and to distract attention from Turkey’s substantial economic woes.

“This is not just a debate about a building,” said Soner Cagaptay, Turkey analyst for the Washington Institute. “Ataturk established Hagia Sophia as a museum to underline his vision of secularizing Turkey. And nearly 100 years later, Erdogan is trying to do the opposite.”

”(Erdogan) feels the pressure of popular support dwindling and therefore he wants to use issues that he hopes will remobilize his right-wing base around nativist, populist, anti-elitist topics,” said Cagaptay, author of the book “Erdogan’s Empire.”

Built under Byzantine Emperor Justinian, Hagia Sophia was the main seat of the Eastern Orthodox church for centuries, where emperors were crowned amidst ornate marble and mosaic decorations. Four minarets were added to the terracotta-hued structure with cascading domes and the building was turned into an imperial mosque following the 1453 Ottoman conquest of Constantinople — the city that is now Istanbul.

The building opened its doors as a museum in 1935, a year after the Council of Ministers’ decision. Islamist groups, however, regard the symbolic structure as a legacy of Ottoman Sultan Mehmet the Conqueror and strongly object to its status as a museum. Large crowds have gathered outside Hagia Sophia on the May 31 anniversary of the city’s conquest to pray and demand that it be restored as a place of Muslim worship.

In the past few years, Turkey has been allowing readings from the Quran inside Hagia Sophia and Erdogan himself has recited prayers there. This year, he oversaw by video conference the recital of the “prayer of conquest” on the anniversary of the Ottoman conquest.

On Tuesday, Istanbul-based Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I, considered the spiritual leader of the world’s Orthodox Christians, noted that Hagia Sophia had served as a place of worship for Christians for 900 years and for Muslims for 500 years.

“As a museum, Hagia Sophia can function as a place and symbol of encounter, dialogue and peaceful coexistence of peoples and cultures, mutual understand and solidarity between Christianity and Islam,” he said.

Bartholomew added: “the potential conversion of Hagia Sophia into a mosque will turn millions of Christians across the world against Islam.” Greece also strongly objects to attempts to change Hagia Sophia into a mosque, arguing that its designation as a historic monument must be maintained.

“I hope that President Erdogan does not proceed with something that will deeply hurt Turkey,” Greek Foreign Minister Nikos Dendias said. “This monument has endured many things and it will always return, but Turkey’s image will take a severe blow.”

Turkish media reports say the government was considering the possibility of keeping Hagia Sophia open to tourists even if it were turned into a mosque. That status would be similar to Istanbul’s Blue Mosque, which sits right across from Hagia Sophia and functions both as a house of worship and a tourist spot.

Hurriyet and other media have reported that Hagia Sophia could be reconverted into a mosque by a public holiday on July 15, when the country marks the fourth anniversary of the foiling of an attempted coup.

Cagaptay, the analyst said, the Hagia Sophia issue would likely have a “temporary impact in keeping Erdogan’s base with him.” “(But) if he does not deliver economic growth, I can’t see him winning elections as he did in the past,” Cagaptay said.

Suzan Fraser reported from Ankara, Turkey. Elena Becatoros in Athens contributed.

June 14, 2020

ANKARA, Turkey (AP) — Turkey is “moving away from the target,” the country’s health minister warned Sunday as the daily number of new coronavirus cases rose above 1,500 following the relaxation of restrictions.

Fahrettin Koca tweeted that 1,562 new cases were recorded over the previous 24 hours, the highest daily figure since June 3. Reporting 1,330 recoveries, he said: “Our number of recovered patients fell below the number of new cases. The need for intensive care and respiratory equipment is rising.”

Koca also reported 15 deaths due to coronavirus, taking the total since the first case on March 11 to 4,807. Turkey has recorded a total of 178,239 coronavirus cases. At the start of June, the government authorized cafes, restaurants, gyms, parks, beaches and museums to reopen and eased stay-at-home orders for the elderly and young.

A weekend curfew that was due to be implemented last week was canceled, ending the series of part-time lockdowns in place since April. Koca called for people to switch to a period of “controlled social life” from Monday to halt the rise in cases.

June 25, 2020

The Belgian Chamber of Representatives will today be voting on whether to “formally recognize the State of Palestine.”

The resolution, said Socialist MP Malik Ban Achour, urges the federal government “to formally recognize the State of Palestine alongside the State of Israel and to consider this recognition as a contribution by Belgium to the solution based on the coexistence of two democratic and independent states having the right to live in peace and security with mutually recognized, accepted and respected borders. ”

The 150-member House of Representatives will also debate a second resolution calling for the government to prepare a list of ‘’counter-measures’’ to be implemented if the Israeli annexation plan goes ahead on 1 July.

MPs from left-wing parties, including the Socialist Party and members of the French and Green parties, proposed the resolutions.

Earlier this week, more than 1,000 members of parliament from across Europe signed a letter warning Israel against annexing parts of the occupied West Bank.

The legislators said they “share serious concerns about President Trump’s plan for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the imminent prospect of Israeli annexation of West Bank territory.”

According to private daily Al-Bawaba, the resolution supporting EU punitive measures against Israel passed in a committee earlier this month with an easy majority and is likely to pass in the plenary.

However, the measure to recognize a Palestinian state passed by one vote in the Foreign Affairs Committee and is considered less likely to be approved by the plenary.

Sweden became the first EU member to officially recognize Palestine in 2014, though other parliaments have since called on their governments to do so.

Source: Middle East Monitor.

Link: https://www.middleeastmonitor.com/20200625-belgium-votes-on-recognising-state-of-palestine-imposing-sanctions-on-israel/.

June 14, 2020

BEIJING (AP) — China reported its highest daily total of new coronavirus cases in two months on Sunday and infections in South Korea also rose, showing how the disease can come back as curbs on business and travel are lifted.

Meanwhile, Egypt reported its biggest daily increase on Saturday. Infections were rising in some U.S. states as President Donald Trump pushed for businesses to reopen despite warnings by public health experts.

China had 57 new confirmed cases in the 24 hours through midnight Saturday, the National Health Commission reported. That was the highest since mid-April and included 36 in the capital, Beijing, a city of 20 million people.

Beijing’s cases all were linked to its biggest wholesale food market, which was shut down Saturday, the official China News Service reported, citing the city’s disease control agency. It said 27 worked there and nine had direct or indirect exposure to it.

The Xinfadi market was closed after 50 people tested positive for the virus in the Chinese capital’s first confirmed cases in 50 days. The world is seeing more than 100,000 newly confirmed cases every day, according to data from Johns Hopkins University.

China, where the pandemic began in December, and other countries that suffered early on including South Korea, Italy and Spain have seen numbers of new infections decline. Brazil, India, the United States and other countries are seeing large increases.

China responded to the outbreak with the world’s most intensive anti-disease controls, isolating cities with some 60 million people and shutting down much of its economy in steps that later were imitated by some other governments.

The ruling Communist party eased most limits on business and travel after declaring victory over the disease in March. Some curbs still are in place including a ban on most foreign travelers arriving in the country.

On Saturday, authorities in Beijing locked down 11 residential communities near the Xinfadi market. White fencing sealed off a road leading to apartment buildings and drivers were required to show identification to enter the area.

South Korea’s government reported 34 more coronavirus cases, adding to an upward trend in infections. The Korea Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said 30 of the new cases were in the greater Seoul area, where half of the country’s 51 million people live. New cases have been linked to nightlife establishments, church services, a large-scale e-commerce warehouse and door-to-door sellers.

The Egyptian Health Ministry announced 1,677 new confirmed cases. Egypt is the Arab world’s most populous country and has its highest coronavirus death toll. The country has reported 1,484 deaths and 42,980 confirmed cases.

In the United States, the number of new cases in the southwestern state of Arizona has risen to more than 1,000 per day from fewer than 400 when the state’s shutdown was lifted in mid-May, according to an analysis by The Associated Press.

Gov. Doug Ducey is not requiring Arizona residents to wear masks in public despite warnings by public health experts outside the government. Elsewhere, bar owners in New Orleans were preparing to reopen. San Francisco restaurants resumed outdoor seating Friday and the California government allowed hotels, zoos, museums and aquariums to reopen.

The states of Utah and Oregon suspended further reopening of their economies due to a spike in cases. The latest Chinese cases raised the mainland’s total to 83.132, with 4,634 deaths, according to the Health Commission. South Korea has reported 12,085 cases and 277 deaths.

Also Sunday, China’s air regulator announced China Southern Airlines was required to suspend flights between Dhaka, Bangladesh, and the southern city of Guangzhou for four weeks after 17 passengers on Thursday’s flight tested positive for the virus.

Beijing allows each airline to make one flight per week on each route. Under rules announced June 4, a route will be suspended for one week if five passengers on a flight test positive and four weeks if the number rises to 10.

In Europe, France’s highest administrative court ruled Saturday that virus concerns no longer justify banning public protests. The Council of State’s decision allows for demonstrations and marches as long as health protections are respected. Events must be declared in advance to local authorities and not deemed a risk to public order.

The ruling came as an unauthorized protest against police violence and racial injustice wound down in Paris. Police had stopped at least 15,000 protesters from a planned march through the city Saturday, citing virus-related restrictions on any gathering of more than 10 people.

Associated Press writer Hyung-Jin Kim in Seoul, South Korea, and AP journalists worldwide contributed to this report.

By JT – Jun 16,2020

AMMAN — The Kingdom’s largest nature reserve, the Dana Biosphere Reserve in southern Jordan, has reopened after rehabilitating its facilities to receive visitors after the tourism sector ground to a halt as a result of precautionary coronavirus measures and lockdowns.

Director of the reserve Amer Ruffou’ said that “good tourist activity” is being witnessed at the facility as local tourism is returning back to normal as part of the recovery phase following the government’s decision to open tourist attractions, hotels and restaurants across the country, the Jordan News Agency, Petra, reported.

Ruffou’ said in a press release that the Dana Biosphere Reserve in the Tafileh Governorate, which covers a “spectacular landscape” along the face of the Great Rift Valley and is home to a variety of wildlife, had refurbished its facilities, including the Guest House, Al Rummanah Camp and the Old Tourist Village, as part of its preparations to welcome visitors.

The nature reserve’s management also launched promotional programs to attract tourist groups, he said, noting that the day and overnight visits are subject to public safety and health protection regulations to curb the spread of COVID-19, which are being observed by both visitors and workers.

Ruffou’ noted that a special team had been assigned to enforce safety precautions according to government instructions, with temperature-taking devices and sanitisers at the entrances of the guest house and the camp.

He said that the guest house consists of 24 hotel rooms and offers quality food and drinks, while the Al Rummanah Camp includes 30 tourist tents equipped with health facilities. The camp offers traditional meals, hot drinks and overnight accommodation.

Source: The Jordan Times.

Link: http://jordantimes.com/news/local/dana-reserve-reopens-after-facelift.

By Dana Moukhallati

Dubai (AFP)

June 9, 2020

The first Arab space mission to Mars, armed with probes to study the Red Planet’s atmosphere, is designed to inspire the region’s youth and pave the way for scientific breakthroughs, officials said Tuesday.

The unmanned probe Al-Amal — Hope in Arabic — is to blast off from a Japanese space centre on July 15, with preparations now in their final stages.

The project is the next giant step for the United Arab Emirates, whose colossal skyscrapers and mega-projects have put it on the world map.

The UAE sent its first astronaut into space last year and is also planning to build a “Science City” to replicate conditions on Mars, where it hopes to build a human settlement by 2117.

Omran Sharaf, the mission’s project manager, said that apart from the ambitious scientific goals, the mission was designed to hark back to the region’s golden age of cultural and scientific achievements.

“The UAE wanted to send a strong message to the Arab youth and to remind them of the past, that we used to be generators of knowledge,” he told AFP.

“People of different backgrounds and religion coexisted and shared a similar identity,” he said of the Arab world, where many countries are today wracked by sectarian conflicts and economic crises.

“Put your differences aside, focus on building the region, you have a rich history and you can do much more.”

– Narrow window –

Sarah al-Amiri, the mission’s deputy project manager, said it was imperative that the project have a long-term scientific impact.

“It is not a short-lived mission, but rather one that continues throughout the years and produces valuable scientific findings — be it by researchers in the UAE or globally,” she told AFP.

She said that the probe will provide a comprehensive image of the weather dynamics in Mars’ atmosphere with the use of three scientific instruments.

The first is an infrared spectrometer to measure the planet’s lower atmosphere and analyse the temperature structure.

The second, a high-resolution imager that will provide information about the ozone; and a third, an ultraviolet spectrometer to measure oxygen and hydrogen levels from a distance of up to 43,000 kilometers from the surface.

The three tools will allow researchers to observe the Red Planet “at all times of the day and observe all of Mars during those different times”, Amiri said.

“Something we want to better understand, and that’s important for planetary dynamics overall, is the reasons for the loss of the atmosphere and if the weather system on Mars actually has an impact on loss of hydrogen and oxygen,” she said, referring to the two components that make up water.

Sharaf said that fueling of the probe is to begin next week.

It is scheduled to launch on July 15 from Japan’s Tanegashima Space Center and return to Earth in February 2021, depending on many variables including the weather.

“If we miss the launch opportunity, which is between mid-July and early August, then we’d have to wait for two years for another window,” Sharaf said.

But hopes are high that the mission will take place as scheduled, and not be derailed by the coronavirus pandemic.

In a new sign of warming ties between Israel and Gulf Arab nations, the Jewish state Tuesday wished the UAE success with the mission.

We “hope this step will contribute towards deeper cooperation between all countries in the region,” its foreign ministry’s “Israel in the Gulf” Twitter account wrote in Arabic.

Source: Mars Daily.

Link: https://www.marsdaily.com/reports/First_Arab_mission_to_Mars_designed_to_inspire_youth_999.html.

by Ed Adamczyk

Washington DC (UPI)

Jun 10, 2020

Turkey will purchase an additional Russian-made S-400 air defense system, the head of Turkey’s Defense Industries Administration said.

“We have a basic agreement on the supply of the second batch of the Russian S-400 system, and there are some technical issues regarding transport operations,” Ismail Demir said in a television interview earlier this week. “Ankara is also interested in proposals to purchase Patriot and Eurosam air defense systems.”

A Turkish official said the sale would go on despite production and delivery issues caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Turkey received a loan from Russia to partially finance the $2.5 billion purchase of the S-400 system of ground-to-air armaments. An agreement was signed in December 2017 and the first “Triumf” missiles and missile launchers arrived in Turkey in July 2019.

The deal caused a crisis in U.S.-Turkish relations, with Washington demanding an end to the sale in exchange for the opportunity to purchase American Patriot systems.

The United States also threatened to delay or cancel the sale of F-35 fighter jets to Turkey and impose sanctions, but Ankara did not yield to U.S. pressure.

The S-400 missile includes a command and control center capable of coordinating several battalions of troops, a radar detection system and ultra-long-range missiles.

Russia has said that the missiles are designed to destroy aircraft, and cruise and ballistic missiles. It can also be used against ground installations, and can engage targets up to 250 miles away or at an altitude of up to 18 miles.

Source: Space War.

Link: https://www.spacewar.com/reports/Turkey_to_buy_additional_S-400_missile_defense_system_from_Russia_999.html.

June 11, 2020

ANKARA, Turkey (AP) — Turkey’s parliament on Thursday approved a contentious government-proposed bill that will grant neighborhood watchmen powers that are almost on par with the country’s police force.

The bill passed overnight with backing from President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s ruling party and its nationalist ally, despite opposition parties’ concerns that the legislation empowers an under-qualified force and will lead to human rights violations and a further erosion of freedoms.

It was approved after days of tense debate that culminated in violence Tuesday, with an opposition legislator saying he was punched by a lawmaker from the nationalist party. The watchmen, known as “bekci,” traditionally guarded neighborhoods and parks and were armed only with batons and whistles. The force was abolished and folded into the police in 2008, but Erdogan’s government revived it following a failed coup attempt in 2016.

The bill allows the more than 21,000 neighborhood guards — which now also include women — to use firearms, to stop vehicles, carry out ID checks and conduct body searches. The guards cannot arrest or interrogate suspects.

The government and its nationalist ally insist the neighborhood guards meet a need for an auxiliary force to assist police and that the new powers will facilitate police operations. They argue that neighborhoods have become safer since the force was revived.

The main opposition pro-secular Republican People’s Party, or CHP, and two other opposition parties, voted against the proposal,calling it an attempt by the government to form a loyal militia force. They have also voiced concerns that the force, which operates at night, would act as “morality police” in line with the government’s conservative and religious values.

The opposition argued that recruitment to the neighborhood guards is opaque, and has lead to suspicions that those enrolled are chosen among ruling party supporters. The opposition parties have also criticized the government for prioritizing the security force instead of focusing on unemployment or other negative impacts from the coronavirus outbreak.

“People have lost their jobs and their salaries … What good is the watchmen to them?” asked pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party legislator Filiz Kerestecioglu. “An under-educated mass that will perhaps act as a morality police is being unleashed on society.”

June 06, 2020

BAMAKO, Mali (AP) — French forces have killed Abdelmalek Droukdel, the leader of al-Qaida’s North Africa affiliate, the France’s defense minister announced late Friday, in what would be a major victory for France after years of battling jihadists in the Sahel.

There was no immediate confirmation of his death from al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb, known as AQIM, which has made millions of dollars abducting foreigners for ransom over the years and made large swaths of West Africa too dangerous for aid groups to access.

French Defense Minister Florence Parly tweeted that Droukdel and several of his allies were killed Wednesday in northern Mali by French forces and their partners. It was not immediately clear how his identity was confirmed by the French.

Droukdel’s reported death comes after French President Emmanuel Macron and the leaders of the G5 Sahel group — Mauritania, Mali, Burkina Faso, Niger and Chad — launched a new plan in January to fight jihadists in the area. France deployed 600 additional soldiers to its Barkhane force, raising the number of troops there to 5,100.

In a March video released by the extremist monitoring group SITE, Droukdel urged governments of the Sahel region to try to end the French military presence, calling the troops “armies of occupation.” It was not clear how long Droukdel had been in Mali, Algeria’s southern neighbor. For years he was thought to be holed up in the Kabyle region east of the capital of his native Algeria, and many people had questioned why he was never captured by Algerian security forces, which had honed their counter-terrorism skills over the decades.

He was widely seen as the symbolic leader of al Qaida’s North African branch, whose operational center for attacks shifted to northern Mali over the past decade. That led to the French military invasion of the region in 2013 seeking to counter Islamist extremist designs on southern Mali and the capital, Bamako.

Droukdel made his reputation as a feared extremist leader in Algeria, which beginning in the early 1990s was convulsed by violence in what the nation now calls the “black decade.” Droukdel’s al Qaida affiliate had claimed responsibility for numerous deadly suicide bombings in Algeria, including targeting a United Nations building in Algiers in 2007, shattered by a vehicle packed with explosives.

Droukdel, also known by the nom de guerre Abu Musab Abdul Wadud, transformed the Salafist Group for Call and Combat, known as the GSPC, into al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb, spreading the movement across Africa’s Sahel region under the umbrella of the global terror network.

More recently he had been commanding all the al-Qaida groups in North Africa and the Sahel, including the JNIM, which has claimed responsibility for devastating attacks on the Malian military and U.N. peacekeepers trying to stabilize the volatile country.

Parly identified him as a member of al-Qaida’s “management committee.” Related anti-terrorist operations in the region also led to the arrest May 19 of a major figure in the Islamic State in the Greater Sahara, Mohamed el Mrabat, she said.

She said the operations dealt a “severe blow” to terrorist groups in the region that have been operating for years despite the presence of thousands of French, U.N. and other African troops.

Associated Press writer Angela Charlton in Paris contributed to this report.

June 05, 2020

ANKARA, Turkey (AP) — Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan on Friday canceled a decision to impose a new, two-day weekend curfew in 15 of the country’s provinces that took many by surprise. Erdogan said on Twitter that he was reversing the decision on grounds that it “would have diverse social and economic consequences.”

He did not elaborate but the surprise decision to renew a weekend stay-at-home order, announced earlier on Friday, had caused confusion, with many people scrambling to cancel train or air tickets or other weekend travel plans.

Erdogan said: “I did not find it in my heart to allow our citizens who started to re-organize their daily lives after a 2.5-month break, to suffer.” He did, however, urge people to wear masks, abide by social distancing practices and maintain high levels of hygiene.

The Interior Ministry had announced the stay-at-home order in 15 provinces including Istanbul and Ankara even as the country lifted a raft of restrictions earlier in the week. Domestic air travel resumed, restaurants began welcoming sit-in customers and beaches, swimming pools, parks, gyms and museums reopened amid a slowdown in the virus’ spread.

Alpay Azap, a member of Turkey’s scientific advisory body, said the new weekend curfew was announced because of an uptick in coronavirus cases in the southeastern cities of Gaziantep and Diyarbakir as well as some places on the Black Sea coast. He also said that the caseload in Ankara has not decreased.

Fearing possible negative effects on the already troubled economy, the country has been imposing short weekend and holiday curfews, instead of total lockdowns. It has also banned people above the age of 65 and minors from leaving home apart from certain days of the week. Those restrictions remain in place.

Turkey plans to resume international flights with 40 countries in June, starting on June 10 with flights to and from Bahrain, Bulgaria, Qatar, Greece and the self-declared state in the north of Cyprus that is only recognized by Turkey.

The country has reported more than 167,000 confirmed coronavirus cases and 4,630 deaths.