Prosecutors call for investigation into Turkey's religious head over Atatürk remarks

(Updates with statements from Erbaş)

Turkish prosecutors have called for Ali Erbaş, head of Turkey's Religious Affairs Directorate (Diyanet), to face legal action for his remarks that allegedly criticised Turkey’s founding father Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, Cumhuriyet reported on Sunday.

During the first prayers in Istanbul’s Hagia Sophia following its re-conversion into a mosque on Friday, Erbaş seemingly implicitly criticised Atatürk by referencing Ottoman Sultan Mehmet II's deed declaring that any person who used the site for purposes other than a mosque would be damned.

The Hagia Sophia, originally built as a Byzantine cathedral in 537, was turned into a mosque following the Ottoman conquest of Istanbul on May 29, 1453, and then became a museum in 1935 under Atatürk’s presidency.

Sabih Kanadoğlu, the Honorary Chief Prosecutor of the Supreme Court of Appeals and the former president of the Turkish Law Institute, called for legal action against Erbaş.

"Let alone the punishment, the only word to be said to a President of Religious Affairs who speaks in this way is 'what a shame'," Kanadoğlu said.

Hamdi Yaver Aktan, the Honorary Head of Departments of the Supreme Court of Appeals, also called for legal action to be taken.

"An investigation must be launched against Erbaş directly by the public prosecutors, demanding prison terms from one year and six months to four years and six months," Aktan said.

Meanwhile, Özgür Özel, deputy head of the secular main opposition Republican People's Party (CHP) in the parliament, "vowed" that Erbaş will not get away with his statements, according to Cumhuriyet.

"Those who make the habit of insulting our founding leaders, now protect others who insult. I vowed that Erbaş will pay the price of cursing Atatürk while sitting in that seat," Özel said.

On Sunday, Erbaş responded to allegations of implicitly insulting the founder of modern Turkey.

“Atatürk died 82 years ago. One does not invoke curses on those who have passed, but prays for them,’’ Erbaş told Hürriyet newspaper in a written statement.

Erbaş said he made a general statement about the curse upon those who use pious foundation estates for other purposes and he was not referring to what happened to the Hagia Sophia at the hands of Atatürk.

“I was referring to the future and not the past,’’ he said.
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