02/28/2022, 00.00
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Citizenship, opportunity and freedom: Istanbul (and Turkey) according to Ekrem İmamoğlu

by Dario Salvi

AsiaNews meets the mayor of Turkey's economic and commercial capital on the sidelines of the "Mediterranean Frontier of Peace" event. He calls the Russian invasion of Ukraine a "shame" and hopes for a "solution" through "dialogue". The focus is on young people and the weaker sections of the population. Religions are a resource, the State must be secular.

Florence (AsiaNews) - The Russian invasion of Ukraine is a "shame" that has brought war back to the heart of Europe, for which a "solution" must be found through "discussion and dialogue," moreover the concept of "citizenship" as an element that unites the inhabitants of a territory regardless of their professed religion, erasing the term "minority" in a reality in which its members can benefit from "equal rights and duties". These are the key concerns for  the mayor of Istanbul, Ekrem İmamoğlu, shared in an interview with AsiaNews, on the sidelines of the "Mediterranean Frontier of Peace" conference held in Florence from 23 to 27 February.

A charismatic leader and high profile member of the opposition Republican People's Party (CHP), he defeated the government candidate and former Prime Minister Binali Yıldırım in the 2019 elections, taking control of what is considered the country's economic and commercial capital. Analysts and experts consider him to be one of the most authoritative challengers in the 2023 presidential elections, and one of the few who could overturn the decades-long leadership of Recep Tayyip Erdogan and the Akp. Below the full interview:

Mayor İmamoğlu, let's start with current events: what repercussions might the Russian invasion of Ukraine have on the Mediterranean and the Middle East?

This century does not deserve a war, which that I consider unacceptable, we should discuss everything we can do to solve this issue. Nations should come together and find a solution, through discussion and dialogue. We condemn this attack and hope that [the dispute] can be resolved as quickly as possible, to bring peace to the area. In this century of pandemic [from Covid-19] and economic crisis, now we also have a war in the heart of Europe... it is a shame! 

You mentioned the pandemic. What is the situation in Istanbul after two years of Covid and a nationwide economic crisis? 

The world is facing an economic crisis, but Turkey is one of the nations that is experiencing this crisis most profoundly. Our city is one of the most exposed because of its large population, which includes two million refugees out of a total of 16 million people, but if we add the working population around it, we reach almost 20 million. When we took over the government of Istanbul three years ago, the budget reserved for social policies was around 3-4%, today we have raised it to 15-20% for the well-being of our citizens, especially children, young people and mothers. We have set ourselves the goal of creating a bridge of solidarity between our wealthy citizens and our poorer citizens, so that one can assist the other. 

Turkey has for years promoted a policy of welcoming refugees, especially Syrians. The crisis has forced radical changes...

Our country has successfully promoted a policy of welcoming refugees, even though some mistakes were made over time, and now we have a large refugee component here. With the war in Syria we have seen the failure of the international community, which has failed to resolve the crisis. I hope that the war between Russia and Ukraine will not turn out to be another failure in this sense, but that it can be resolved as soon as possible to avert the risk of another huge wave of refugees and immigration. In Turkey we have more than five million Syrians alone, then there are the others [from Afghanistan, Iraq, etc]: the real solution is to guarantee them a safe return to their homeland and be able to live in peace in their homeland. 

A recent study shows deep dissatisfaction among young people in Turkey, who are increasingly eager to emigrate. What policies have you thought of to stem the exodus?

Istanbul faces the same challenges as other big cities around the world right now: urbanisation, climate change, quality of life, combating poverty. For us the challenge is even greater because it is a young metropolis, almost 50% of the population under 30, and we have to give them hope, make them believe that they can achieve their goals and their dreams can come true. However, they are compounded by problems that affect the entire nation such as education, finding a job, which is why the most educated young people or those with the most opportunities are looking abroad for a solution. The only way to reverse this trend is to make profound changes to national policies so that Turkey - like Istanbul - remains a land of opportunity. Next year we will celebrate the centenary [of the republic and presidential elections will be held, ed] and I believe that there will be profound transformations, young people will be able to rediscover dreams can come true in their homeland. 

One year ago, Pope Francis made a historic visit to Iraq. What can you tell us about inter-religious dialogue and relations between Christians and Muslims?

I see the union of these parts as a richness, a  colours that enriches the city, and Istanbul is perhaps the most beautiful centre of this union on a global level. When we took over the government of the metropolis, we tried from the beginning to ensure the widest possible confrontation and dialogue between different religions, and we did the same in the municipal administration, choosing people of different faiths (as well as age and gender), so that from within they could guarantee that funerals and weddings would take place in accordance with the religion practised.

The aim is to unite and discuss each other's needs and requirements; we also promote meetings to address the most important issues and find - as far as possible - solutions to problems. For everyone it is a kind of spiritual journey and, regardless of their faith, it is an opportunity to mature. At the same time, as mayor I support the value of the secular nature of the State and institutions and religious freedom. I hope that Istanbul will increasingly be a city where all believers can live happily and in peace. Another point is not to use the term 'minority', because we are all 'citizens' and members of a community with equal rights and duties. This applies to the city I administer and to the country: this is my wish for the future!

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