Turkey’s president on Sunday underlined that the Hagia Sophia’s status is an internal matter, urging other countries to respect the final decision of the country.

“The final decision-maker on the status of the Hagia Sophia is the Turkish nation, not others. This is our internal affair,” Recep Tayyip Erdogan told Istanbul-based journal Kriter.

Erdogan stressed that other countries should respect Turkey’s decision, adding that the conversion of the iconic landmark from a mosque to a museum in 1934 was “a painful decision for our nation.”

He dismissed domestic and foreign criticism on the decision, saying they had “no value” in the courts.

On Friday, a top Turkish court annulled a 1934 cabinet decree, which had turned Istanbul’s Hagia Sophia into a museum.

This verdict by the country’s Council of State paved the way for its use again as a mosque after 85 years.

It ruled that the architectural gem had been owned by a foundation established by Ottoman Sultan Mehmet II, the conqueror of Istanbul, and presented to the community as a mosque — a status that cannot be legally changed.

The Hagia Sophia was used as a church for centuries under the rule of the Byzantine Empire. It was turned into a mosque following the conquest of Istanbul in 1453. In 1935, the Hagia Sophia was converted into a museum.

President Erdogan said the historical complex will be ready for worship by Friday prayers on July 24.

Stabilization in Libya relieves North Africa, Europe

Erdogan underlined that in Libya, warlord Khalifa Haftar and his supporters’ plans to capture the North African country’s capital Tripoli failed thanks to Turkey’s determination.

He pointed out that the war-torn country’s internationally recognized government had managed to remove Haftar’s forces from Tripoli in a short time.

“The gains on the ground will hopefully herald peace and tranquility in Libya,” said Erdogan, stressing Ankara’s support for Libya “in all areas, from health, transportation to infrastructure.”

Turkey secured its rights and interests in the Eastern Mediterranean via recent agreements with Libya on military and security cooperation, as well as maritime demarcation, Erdogan added.

He said Libya’s stabilization would benefit not only Libya’s people, but also to the entire region, saying: “The political and economic strengthening of this country will relieve both North Africa and Europe.”

“The international community should now choose to support the legitimate government and stop the putschists who commit war crimes. Legionnaires who turned Libya into a bloodbath should be removed from Libya as soon as possible,” he said, adding that putschists should “pay the price” for mass graves unearthed in the wake of Haftar’s recent retreat.

Libya has been torn by civil war since the ouster of late ruler Muammar Gaddafi in 2011.

Libya’s new government was founded in 2015 under a UN-led agreement, but efforts for a long-term political settlement failed due to the military offensive by warlord Khalifa Haftar’s forces.

The UN recognizes the Libyan government headed by Prime Minister Fayez al-Sarraj as the country’s legitimate authority.

Turkey’s open to cooperation, sharing in Mediterranean

Touching on an ongoing dispute in the Eastern Mediterranean, Erdogan said some countries including Turkey’s neighbors aimed to usurp its rights, as well as the rights of the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus (TRNC).

He underlined that hydrocarbon resources in the Mediterranean represented an opportunity for the whole region, adding that Ankara did not desire tension in the region and that its door was open to offers based on cooperation and fair sharing.

Turkey, as a guarantor nation for the TRNC, is currently carrying out hydrocarbon exploration activities in the Eastern Mediterranean with two drilling vessels, Fatih and Yavuz, along with Oruc Reis and Barbaros Hayrettin Pasa seismic vessels in the same region.

Turkey has consistently contested the Greek Cypriot administration’s unilateral drilling in the Eastern Mediterranean, asserting that the TRNC also has rights to the resources in the area.

The TRNC was established on Nov. 15, 1983, almost a decade after Turkey’s 1974 Cyprus Peace Operation on the island, which stopped persecution and violence against Turkish Cypriots by ultra-nationalist Greek Cypriots. Turkey remains as the guarantor for the TRNC.

Turkey to be health tourism hub

During the interview, Erdogan said Turkey has assisted 140 countries with medical equipment throughout the pandemic.

“In addition to our own hospitals, Turkish-made ventilators have been used on many continents, and from Brazil to Somalia,

“Our 17 drug development projects, including eight vaccines, are ongoing,” he added.

Referring to Turkey’s success in managing the pandemic, he said the country would become a major center for health tourism.

Israel’s annexation plan

On recent plans by Israel to annex about 30% of the West Bank, Erdogan criticized the international community’s “silence” on injustices committed by Tel Aviv in Palestine.

“Israel’s announcement of the annexation plan of Palestinian settlements in the West Bank and Jordan Valley is a new step in the policy of occupation and persecution,” he said.

“Although all the lands belonged to Palestine in 1947, Palestine has shrunk and Israel has got bigger over the years. With the invasion of Jerusalem in 1967, a new phase began. Today, unfortunately, there is no longer a place called Palestine on the map. Almost all of Palestine’s lands have been swallowed by Israel. Now, Israel wants to occupy the remaining land. The annexation plan aims for this goal.”

Erdogan urged the world to stop Israel’s “lawless steps,” stressing that Muslims had no prejudice or hostility towards Jewish and Israeli people.

“What we oppose is the Israeli government’s invasive and unlawful policies.”

Israel declared earlier this month that it had postponed its plans to annex parts of the West Bank, but that it would “certainly happen in July.”

Palestinian officials have threatened to abolish bilateral agreements with Israel if it goes ahead with annexation, which would further undermine a two-state solution.

Turkey and much of the international community do not recognize Israel’s sovereignty over the territories it has occupied since 1967.

*Writing by Havva Kara Aydin and Burak Dag

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