Massive Turkey-funded mosque stirs unease in north Cyprus

Dylan Collins
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The Hala Sultan mosque in Haspolat (called Mia Milia by Greek Cypriots), in the breakaway Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus, on July 7, 2018

In the flat sunbaked fields north of the Cypriot capital Nicosia, a huge Turkey-funded mosque opening this week has caused a stir in the largely secular Muslim society.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is to attend the opening ceremony, expected to take place on Tuesday, of the 3,000-capacity house of worship, with its four minarets and built in classic Ottoman style.

While many have welcomed it, the mosque has fuelled concern among some Turkish Cypriots that Ankara is increasing its dominance over the north of the divided island.

"This mosque symbolises the Islamist mentality, the Sunni Islam mentality and also an imperialist mentality," Sener Elcil, head of the Turkish Cypriot Teachers Union, told AFP at his Nicosia office.

"The Turkish Cypriot community is secular. We are not a fundamentalist Islamist community."

Elcil and many other leftist Turkish Cypriots strongly oppose Ankara's dealings in northern Cyprus, which broke away after Turkey invaded the island in 1974 following a Greek Cypriot coup seeking union with Greece.

Turkey is the only country to recognise the unilaterally declared Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus, whose administration it bankrolls and where it has some 35,000 soldiers stationed.

"Erdogan's policy is to transform the Turkish Cypriot identity," said Izzet Izcan, a former member of parliament and founder of the socialist United Cyprus Party who has urged members of the government to boycott the opening ceremony.

"Our identity is based on Cyprus. We have a lot of common identity with Greek Cypriots, and Armenians and Maronites, all of which have a presence on the island," said Izcan.

"What Erdogan is trying to do is to annex the north, to build another identity... They are trying to make us good Muslims for their way of life, and pure Turks as they wish to see us."

- 'Ottoman ancestors' -

Elcil and Izcan are at the forefront of calls against Ankara's strengthening pull on Turkish Cypriot life.

"We all know (the goal) behind this is to assimilate and to integrate the north part of Cyprus to Turkey," Izcan told AFP.

In a rare protest in Nicosia on Friday, members of Elcil's teachers union demonstrated against the mosque under the slogan "put schools and hospitals first".

"What our country needs is science, education and health, (but) priority is being given to investments in religion," demonstrators said in a statement.

The Hala Sultan mosque is the centrepiece of a string of Turkish-funded projects in the same area on the capital's outskirts, including an Islamic high school, several universities and housing projects for students, many of them from Turkey.

Outside the towering new structure with its four 60-metre (200-foot) minarets, local resident Ayhan Ankurt was ecstatic.

The 61-year-old spent months collecting signatures from other residents in the area in favour of building the mosque.

"Every day I've prayed for this mosque," he said.

"With the help of this mosque we have found our identities... and our connection with our Ottoman ancestors."

Hala Sultan is a sized-down copy of the Selimiye mosque in Edirne, Turkey, built during the Ottoman empire reputedly with tax revenues collected in Cyprus.

It is also not to be confused with the Hala Sultan Tekke shrine on the Greek Cypriot side of the island, a pilgrimage destination revered by Muslims as the burial site of a companion of the Prophet Mohammed.

- 'Not an innocent thing' -

"These kinds of buildings, they really add something to the community," said Mustafa Tumer, a 51-year-old marketing professor at the Social Sciences University next to the mosque.

A few kilometres (miles) away in the winding streets of Nicosia's Old Town, 75-year-old shopkeeper Zihni Kalmaz was unimpressed.

"Those minarets! They're huge! And why so many? If I want to pray I can pray on my own or in my shop, but God is here," he said, pointing to his chest.

"If you want to build a mosque, you also have to repair your schools. The school is more important for me. We want to send our kids to good schools."

Elcil of the teachers union said it cost more than $30 million to build the superstructure, which dwarfs the island's other generally squat, two-storey mosques. Official figures on its cost were unavailable.

"They could build a huge hospital for less... They could build more than 20 schools, which we need," he said.

"Instead, they want to build a mosque... on every street in northern Cyprus," he said.

"This is the policy of Erdogan. To occupy the northern part (of the island). It's not an innocent thing to build a mosque in Cyprus."