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Erdogan Faces Backlash Over Plans to Convert Hagia Sophia Into Mosque

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan faces a growing backlash over his plans to turn Istanbul’s iconic Hagia Sophia into a mosque.The sixth-century Byzantine cathedral served as a mosque for 400 years before it was turned into a museum. More  recently, it was declared a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1985.Throughout the Hagia Sophia’s 1,500-year history, its status has reflected the rise and fall of empires.For nearly a millennium, the Hagia Sophia was eastern Christendom’s greatest church. But in 1453 when Ottoman forces led by Sultan Fatih Mehmet conquered Constantinople, now Istanbul, his first act on entering the city was to pray in the cathedral and declare it a mosque.In 1935, the founders of Turkey’s secular state turned the Hagia Sophia from a mosque into a museum as a symbol of modernity. (Dorian Jones/VOA)In 1935, the founder of the modern Turkish republic, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, turned the building into a museum symbolizing Turkey’s new status as a modern Western-style secular society.  For 80 years, symbols of Islam and Christianity have harmoniously coexisted in this architectural marvel, once the largest building in the Byzantine empire.Now, Erdogan is vowing to turn it back into a mosque.Political interestsThe Hagia Sophia’s reconversion has long been a demand of the most ardent elements of Erdogan’s religious and nationalist base.Last year’s celebration of the Muslim conquest of the city saw hundreds of people praying outside the Hagia Sophia as part of a campaign to convert the building into a mosque.Turkey’s Birlik Foundation says more 2 million people have signed its petition calling for the Hagia Sophia to be made a mosque again.Mehmet Alacaci, chief executive of Turkey’s Birlik Foundation, says the campaign to turn Hagia Sophia into a mosque is about reclaiming an important symbol of religious identity. (Dorian Jones/VOA)”The question of its reopening to prayers has been in the heart of Muslims since it was closed to prayers and converted to a museum,” said Mehmet Alacaci, chief trustee of the Birlik Foundation.”The will and bequest of Fatih Sultan Mehmet, who conquered this city, is to have Hagia Sophia as a mosque. And we are in the spirit of taking back this inheritance and property of our ancestors,” he added.Erdogan has long flirted with the Hagia Sophia’s conversion through his nearly 20 years in power, first as a prime minister and then as president.”You know, they changed Hagia Sophia from mosque to museum a while ago. God willing, after the election, we will change Hagia Sophia’s name from museum to mosque,” Erdogan said last year during a campaign rally ahead of  local elections.With the economy hard hit by the COVID-19 pandemic and the president’s ruling AKP Party poll ratings sliding, Erdogan needs to consolidate his base quickly and appears ready to push ahead with Hagia Sophia’s conversion.Professor Istar Gozaydin, an expert on religion and the state, says the move to convert the Hagia Sophia to a mosque is an effort to consolidate the president’s religious and nationalist base amid sliding support for his AKP Party. (Dorian Jones/VOA)”The AKP is suffering in current times. In order to change the agenda in Turkey, they need a [new] subject to be worked on,” said Istar Gozaydin, a professor and expert on religion and the state. “To convert it into a mosque apparently means something for the grassroots of AKP in Turkey and supporters abroad,”  she said.But the gesture that Erdogan is offering to his base is coming at a high price.Protests”The conversion of Hagia Sophia into a mosque will disappoint millions of Christians around the world,” warned the leader of the 300 million Orthodox Christians, Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew.”The Hagia Sophia, which, due to its sacredness, is a vital center where East is embraced with the West, will fracture these two worlds,” he added.Bartholomew, who is based in Istanbul,  aware of the delicate situation facing Turkey’s small remaining Orthodox community, usually refrains from openly criticizing Erdogan.The Ecumenical Patriarchate is receiving growing international support in its fight to avert a transformation of the landmark. The United States urged Ankara not to change the Hagia Sophia’s status.”We urge the government of Turkey to continue to maintain the Hagia Sophia as a museum, as an exemplar of its commitment to respect the faith traditions and diverse history that contributed to the Republic of Turkey, and to ensure it remains accessible to all,” Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said in a statement last Wednesday.Russia, despite its competing interests in Turkey, voiced concerns similar to those of the United States.A nationwide petition calling for the Hagia Sophia to be turned into mosque has been launched. In Sanliurfa, people queue to add their names. (Birlik Foundation)”Hagia Sophia, in addition to its tourism value, has a very deep sacred spiritual value,” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said this week.Protests have also come from the government of neighboring Greece.Erdogan defiantThe Turkish leader has dismissed all international criticism.”Accusations against our country about Hagia Sophia directly target our sovereign rights,” shot back Erdogan last week.A recent opinion poll found most Turkish respondents backed the Hagia Sophia’s conversion. However, the same survey also recorded a larger number of people viewing the issue as an attempt to distract voters from the current economic malaise.There are now growing concerns for the Hagia Sophia’s magnificent interior. Large mosaics depicting Christ, the Virgin Mary and Byzantium rulers adorn the massive walls and ceilings of the onetime cathedral.”It’s not practical, and it’s illogical to convert into a mosque again,” said professor Zeynep Ahunbay, who spent 25 years working on the Hagia Sophia’s restoration and preservation.She alluded to Islam’s traditional ban on divine images.”When you pray, you don’t want to be in the presence of some images, which can be considered like icons, et cetera. It is against the Islamic creed,” she said.”And what will happen? How will [they] be covered during prayers?  Can you imagine a curtain hanging over the mosaics? I think it’s not acceptable.”WATCH: Erdogan Pushes to Reconvert Hagia Sophia into Mosque Sorry, but your browser cannot support embedded video of this type, you can
download this video to view it offline.Download File360p | 10 MB480p | 15 MB540p | 20 MB720p | 41 MBOriginal | 227 MB Embed” />Copy Download AudioThe judges who sit on Turkey’s high court, who invariably accommodate Erdogan’s wishes, are due in the coming days to rule on whether a conversion of the building would be legal. Turkish newspaper columnists close to Erdogan are predicting the court will decide in the president’s favor.There is a growing expectation in Turkey that it may not be long before Hagia Sophia’s minarets rejoin the chorus of surrounding mosques’ calls to prayer.

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Srebrenica Anniversary Prompts Reflection by Bosnian-Americans

Behidin Piric never had the chance to know his maternal grandfather.In 2009, the St. Louis, Missouri, resident received a phone call from his native Bosnia informing him that his grandfather’s body had been found in a mass grave with his hands tied behind the back with barbed wire. He had two bullet wounds in the back of his head.“I had the task of telling my mother who came home from work that they found her father, so that was a pretty tough thing to do,” said the 27-year-old American student.Piric’s grandfather was one of more than 8,000 Bosnian Muslim civilians, mostly men,  who were killed in the town of Srebrenica during the Bosnian war.“The genocide began in Srebrenica in July of 1995 and was a catastrophic uprooting of multiple generations of Bosnian Muslim families,” said Ida Sefer, president of the Chicago-based Bosnian-American Genocide and Education center, in an e-mail interview with VOA.She said Bosnian Serbs backed by neighboring Serbia used torture, sexual assault, forced impregnation, concentration camps, rape camps, ethnic cleansing and murder against the Bosnian Muslim population in the three years after Bosnia declared its independence from the former state of Yugoslavia in 1992.A woman prays at the memorial cemetery in Potocari, near Srebrenica, July 7, 2020. Over 8,000 Bosnian Muslims perished in 10 days of slaughter after the town was overrun by Serb forces in the closing months of the 1992-95 fratricidal war.The International Criminal Court in The Hague convicted former Bosnian Serb military chief Ratko Mladic of genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity, and sentenced him to life imprisonment in 2017. Former Bosnian Serb President Radovan Karadzic was convicted in 2016 for his war crimes and role in perpetrating the genocide.Officials from the Serbian Embassy in Washington did not respond to repeated requests for comment.July 11 marks the 25th anniversary of the Srebrenica massacre. Decades later, survivors and other Bosnians still have a difficult time speaking about the calamities they went through.“We will never heal. Our loss is so huge, so enormous that we will never heal, especially my generation,” said Senada Pargan, a Srebrenica survivor and one of the more than 21,000 Gravestones are lined up at the memorial cemetery in Potocari, near Srebrenica, Bosnia, July 7, 2020.The purpose of the initiative is to record the culture and experiences of Bosnian genocide survivors through interviews, books, letters, and photographs.The Bosnian war was already underway when Piric was born in Srebrenica in 1992. His earliest memory is of leaving Tuzla, the third-largest city in Bosnia, with his parents and brothers after the war ended with the signing of the Dayton Accords by the presidents of Bosnia, Serbia, and Croatia in November 1995.“I remember being in the back of the U.N. truck and seeing soldiers and a bunch of other people,” he recalled. “After that, I have a lot of memories of the rebuilding of the country – the tensions that were still there in the city where I lived after the war. There was still a lot of religious tension, ethnic tensions.”Piric’s father was wounded during the war when a mine exploded, damaging his legs while he was farming potatoes. Besides his grandfather, Piric also lost his maternal grandmother, an uncle, and “countless cousins.”Like Pargan, he said that he and his parents still cannot heal from the tragic events at Srebrenica even though 25 years have gone by.“When I go back to Srebrenica to the memorial, it’s a strange feeling,” he said. ”There’s a feeling of dread. The hairs on the back of my neck stand up. I get goose bumps, so it’s difficult.”Retelling the story of Srebrenica to future generations and never forgetting all those who were lost has become a mission for the Bosnian community in the United States, especially as some Bosnian Serb officials continue to deny that a systematic genocide occurred during the war.“Remembering the 8,372 victims and their families during this time is an important part of preventing genocide in the future, meaning uplifting the voices of the survivors,” Sefer said.“Listening to survivor testimonials, reading the stories of their loved ones, humanizing the people who were murdered, is all a part of remembering.”

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Depp, At Libel Trial, Says Heard Relationship Was ‘Tailspin’

Johnny Depp denied assaulting ex-wife Amber Heard on a private Caribbean island and during a furious rampage in Australia in a third day of evidence Thursday in the actor’s libel suit against a U.K. tabloid newspaper that called him a “wife-beater.”
Depp is suing News Group Newspapers, publisher of The Sun, and the paper’s executive editor, Dan Wootton, over an April 2018 article that said he’d physically abused Heard. He strongly denies the allegation.
Under cross-examination by The Sun’s lawyer, Sasha Wass, Depp depicted a volatile relationship with Heard, during a period when he was trying to kick drugs and alcohol, and sometimes lapsing. He said he came to feel he was in a “constant tailspin” but denied being violent.
Depp rejected Heard’s claim that he subjected her to a “three-day ordeal of assaults” in March 2015 in Australia, where Depp was filming the fifth “Pirates of the Caribbean” movie.
“I vehemently deny it and will go as far as to say it’s pedestrian fiction,” he said.
He said his relationship with Heard was a “constant barrage of insults and demeaning footnotes and accusations of things that never happened.”
Depp and Wass sparred over disputed details of the Australia episode, which ended up with the couple’s rented house being trashed and Depp’s fingertip being severed to the bone.
Depp accuses Heard of cutting off his fingertip by throwing a vodka bottle at him. She denies being in the room when the digit was severed.
According to Heard, Depp snorted cocaine, swigged Jack Daniels from the bottle, smashed bottles, screamed at Heard, smashed her head against a refrigerator, threw her against a pingpong table and broke a window.
“These are fabrications,” he said.
He denied taking drugs but agreed that the couple had argued and at one point he “decided to break my sobriety because I didn’t care anymore. I needed to numb myself.”  
Depp agreed with the lawyer that the house was “wrecked” after the couple’s argument. The court was shown photographs of graffiti-covered mirrors, which Depp acknowledged he’d written on by dipping his bloody fingertip in paint.
But he said Heard was responsible for most of the damage to the house.
“That is completely untrue,” Wass said.
“Thank you, but it’s not,” Depp replied.
Wass also alleged that Depp had lashed out at Heard during an attempt to break an addiction to the opioid Roxicodone on his private island in the Bahamas in 2014.  
Wass said that at the time Depp praised Heard’s efforts to help him get clean. The lawyer read from a message Depp sent to Heard’s mother, saying “your daughter has risen far above the nightmarish task of taking care of this poor old junkie” and speaking of her “heroism.”
Heard alleges that Depp became violent towards her. He denied physical violence, but said Heard’s claim that he was “flipping” and “screaming” might be accurate.
“I remember that I was in a great deal of pain and uncontrollable spasms and such. … So flipping could be a word that was correct,” he said.
“I was not in good shape. It was the lowest point I believe I’ve ever been in in my life.”
Depp accused Heard of telling “porkie pies” — slang for lies — about his behavior. He acknowledged striking out at objects, saying it was better than “taking it out on the person that I love.”
Depp has acknowledged that he may have done things he can’t remember while he was under the influence of alcohol and drugs. But he denied he could have been physically abusive and not remember it.
“There were blackouts, sure, but in any blackout there are snippets of memory,” Depp said.
The Sun’s defense relies on a total of 14 allegations by Heard of Depp’s violence between 2013 and 2016.
The case is shining a light on the tempestuous relationship between Depp and Heard, who met on the set of the 2011 comedy “The Rum Diary” and married in Los Angeles in February 2015. Heard, a model and actress, filed for divorce the following year and obtained a restraining order against Depp on the grounds of domestic abuse. The divorce was finalized in 2017.
While neither Heard, 34, nor 57-year-old Depp is on trial, the case is a showdown between the former spouses, who accuse each other of being controlling, violent and deceitful during their marriage.
Wass read the court an email to Depp that Heard had composed in 2013 but never sent, saying he was “like Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. Half of you I love madly, and the other half scares me.”
Depp accused Heard of making up “hoax” abuse claims. He has acknowledged heavy drinking and drug use, but said Heard’s claim that drugs and alcohol made him a monster was “delusional.”
He also denied claims he hit Heard when she laughed at one of his tattoos, dangled her Yorkshire terrier, Pistol, out a car window and threatened to put the dog in a microwave.
Depp acknowledged having a “rather skewed” sense of humor and said the microwave comment was a running joke because the dog was so tiny.
Heard is attending the three-week trial and is expected to give evidence later.
Depp is also suing Heard for $50 million in the U.S. for allegedly defaming him in a Washington Post article about domestic abuse. That case is due to be heard next year. 

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Bolivia Hospitals Treating Coronavirus Patients at Capacity

Hospitals treating coronavirus patients in Bolivia’s two largest cities, La Paz and El Alto, are overwhelmed by the demand.La Paz Mayor, Luis Revilla, said, covid hospitals in the city are full. The La Portada hospital is full, emergency is full, as well as the Cotahuma hospital.Revilla said, they are calling for the Sur hospital to be up and running as soon as possible.A protesting nurse in La Paz said the hospital has been overwhelmed for several weeks. Mary Ticona said, “We collapsed about two months ago. We are attending to our people as we can, in stretchers, wheelchairs, however we can attend to them. We have collapsed.”Ticona is urging Bolivia’s national health officials to get involved and make coronavirus tests available for the hospital staff, so they can determine who is infected with the coronavirus.Ticona said, some co-workers are already showing symptoms of the virus, which is still surging in one of Latin America’s poorest countries.So far, Bolivia has confirmed more than 42,000 coronavirus cases and more than 1,500 deaths. 

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Fugitive Mexico Ex-Governor Arrested in US on Corruption Charges

The ex-governor of the northern Mexican state of Chihuahua, Cesar Duarte, who was sought for more than two years on corruption charges, is under arrest in the United States.Mexico’s state prosecutor’s office announced Duarte was taken into custody by U.S Marshals in Miami on Wednesday, and preparations are being made for his extradition.Duarte, who governed the northern border state from 2010 to 2016, is accused of misappropriating at least $52 million in public money.The former state governor is expected in Miami federal court by Saturday for a hearing on the charges against him in Mexico.Duarte is among a dozen former Mexican officials arrested on corruption charges, and the first taken into custody since President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador took office in 2018, following an anti-corruption campaign.Duarte’s arrest in the United States occurred as Lopez Obrador was making his first official visit to the U.S. 

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War Crimes Prosecutors to Interview Kosovo President 

Kosovo President Hashim Thaci will go to The Hague on Monday to be interviewed by international war crimes prosecutors.Thaci was a top commander of the Kosovo Liberation Army, which fought a guerrilla war for independence from Serbia in the late 1990s. He announced his appearance on his Facebook page on Wednesday.A special international court has indicted Thaci and other former fighters for alleged war crimes by the KLA, including murder, kidnapping and torture. Thaci has denied the charges.  “While my compatriots as well as me will face international justice with dignity and integrity, I call upon you to stand united in dealing with the challenges that our country is facing,” he said on Facebook. A pretrial judge in the Kosovo Specialist Chambers has yet to decide whether to put Thaci and the others on trial or throw out the case.Thaci has told Kosovars that if he is tried, he will “will immediately resign as your president and face the accusations.”Thaci’s indictment forced the cancellation of last month’s White House peace talks between Kosovar and Serbian leaders. Serbia has refused to recognize an independent Kosovo. NATO peacekeepers remain in Kosovo to prevent tension between the two sides from exploding into violence.

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Trump, Obrador Hail US-Mexico Relationship During Meeting

President Donald Trump welcomed Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador Wednesday to the White House, where they discussed trade, the economy and immigration, days after a new United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement (USMCA) trade deal among the two countries and Canada went into effect.They also remarked on the improved relations between the two countries.FILE – Canada’s Prime Minister Justin Trudeau arrives for a news conference in Ottawa, Canada on July 6, 2020.”The relationship between the U.S. and Mexico has never been closer than it is right now,” Trump said in the Rose Garden before the two leaders signed a joint declaration which “recognizes the advancements our two countries have achieved toward a renewed and strengthened partnership.”The U.S. leader, who in the past has made disparaging remarks about Mexican immigrants and threatened trade tariffs, called the relations between U.S. and Mexico “outstanding,” adding that he and Lopez Obrador “put the interests of our countries first.”López Obrador responded, saying: “As president of Mexico, instead of remembering the insults and things like that against my country, we have received from you, President Trump, understanding and respect.”Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau declined to attend the meeting to commemorate USMCA, citing a busy schedule and the inappropriateness of international travel amid the COVID-19 pandemic.Trump said the U.S. is home to 36 million Mexican Americans and that they make up a “big percentage” of small-business owners.”They’re like you — they’re tough negotiators and great businesspeople, Mr. President,” Trump told the Mexican leader.The leftist Mexican president, often referred to by his initials, AMLO, has brushed off domestic criticism for meeting Trump, who is widely disliked in Mexico because of past disparaging remarks about Mexicans and his stance on immigration.Mexico’s President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador and U.S. President Donald Trump hold a meeting at the White House, in Washington, July 8, 2020.López Obrador’s government sees this visit as an opportunity to reaffirm the importance of USMCA and has tried to distance the visit from topics related to immigration.“It is very important for us to be launching this new agreement, López Obrador said through a translator. “But I also wanted to be here to thank the people of the United States, its government. And thank you, President Trump, for being increasingly respectful with our Mexican fellow men,” he added.In his remarks, López Obrador quoted George Washington, the first U.S. president, who said, “Nations should not take advantage of the unfortunate condition of other people.” López Obrador said Trump has “followed” Washington’s “wise advice.”Some analysts have noted that Trump has used America’s tremendous economic leverage, including threats of tariffs and even a total border closing, to pressure the Mexican leader on issues of trade and immigration.Mexico functions as a “hinge” between the United States and the asylum-seeker origin countries of Central America, said Maria Fernanda Perez Arguello, associate director at the Atlantic Council. “Immigration from Central America — and the push factors in the countries — is the big elephant in the room between AMLO and Trump,” she said.This is López Obrador’s first meeting with Trump and the second visit to the White House by a foreign leader since the coronavirus shutdown in March. Like Trump, López Obrador has downplayed the risks of the coronavirus and said he has never been tested for the coronavirus because he has no symptoms and will take a test only if the White House requires it.Deputy Press Secretary Judd Deere said that all members of the Mexican delegation, including the president, were tested for the coronavirus and that the tests were administered by the White House.Speaking to reporters in Mexico City before his departure Tuesday, López Obrador repeatedly said in response to questions about raising issues such as immigration policy that his focus in the talks would be on the trade deal.“It is always important that there be cooperation for development. But now in a circumstance of global economic crisis, this treaty is going to help us a lot. It is very timely,” López Obrador said.He noted the economic challenges facing Mexico, like those in many other countries during the coronavirus pandemic and stressed the need for Mexico to have good relations with its neighbor.The Mexican leader noted the agenda for bilateral talks includes other topics, and on those, his delegation — which includes Foreign Secretary Marcelo Ebrard Casaubon and Economic Secretary Graciela Márquez Colín — would not take a confrontational approach, but rather try to have a dialogue of understanding with their U.S. counterparts.The USMCA updated the 1990s North American Trade Agreement and was a major policy push for Trump, who cast the former trade deal as harmful to U.S. businesses and workers.The pact includes new laws related to intellectual property protection, the internet, currencies, investment and state-owned enterprises. The new legislation includes more stringent rules on auto manufacturing, e-commerce and labor provisions, but leaves largely unchanged the trade flows among the North American countries valued at $1.2 trillion a year.In addition to private talks between Trump and López Obrador and wider meetings with their advisers, the two leaders attended a dinner Wednesday night with business leaders from both countries.Before going to the White House, López Obrador visited the Lincoln Memorial and a statue of former Mexican President Benito Juárez in Washington. 

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Facebook Removes False Accounts Linked to Brazil’s Bolsonaro

Social media giant Facebook said Wednesday that it had removed dozens of accounts linked to supporters or employees of Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro as part of an investigation into the spread of false news online.Nathaniel Gleicher, the company’s head of cybersecurity policy, said in a statement that 73 Facebook and Instagram accounts, 14 pages and one group had been removed. Brazilian courts have been investigating the spread of false news in connection with Bolsonaro.There was no immediate comment from the presidential office about Facebook’s action.Facebook’s executive said the accounts were linked to the Social Liberal Party, which Bolsonaro left last year after winning the 2018 presidential election, and to employees of the president; two of his sons, Senator Flávio Bolsonaro and congressman Eduardo Bolsonaro; and two other lawmakers.”This network consisted of several clusters of connected activity that relied on a combination of duplicate and fake accounts — some of which had been detected and disabled by our automated systems — to evade enforcement, create fictitious personas posing as reporters, post content, and manage pages masquerading as news outlets,” Gleicher said in the statement.He added that some of the content posted by the accounts had already been taken down for community standards violations, including hate speech.Gleicher said about 883,000 accounts followed one or more of the Bolsonaro linked pages and an additional 917,000 followed one of more of the Instagram accounts that were removed.

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Britain In Huawei Dilemma as China Relations Sour

There is growing speculation that Britain may be about to reverse course and ban the Chinese firm Huawei from its rollout of 5G mobile telecoms technology.  A move by the United States to ban U.S. companies from selling crucial microchips to Huawei appears to have changed the calculation in London. But as Henry Ridgwell reports from London, Beijing has warned Britain against what it calls ‘making China into an enemy.’Camera: Henry Ridgwell

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