10/19/2022, 19.00
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Islamic preacher sentenced to 12 years for a prayer in Hagia Sophia

The event dates back to 2014 when the former basilica was still a museum before it was converted back into a mosque. Abdullah Basfar, who taught Islamic studies, has been in pre-trial custody for two years. Saudi-Turkish tensions partly explain his arrest.

Riyadh (AsiaNews) – A Saudi court last week sentenced an Islamic preacher to 12 years in prison for leading a prayer in 2014 in Istanbul’s Hagia Sophia, a former Byzantine basilica, now a mosque.

The sentence reflects, once again, the kingdom’s repressive attitude towards activists, dissidents, and even clerics who are not aligned with the regime or, more simply, disliked by the people in power.

According to Prisoners of Conscience, a Saudi rights NGO, Imam and Qur‘an reciter Abdullah Basfar was convicted and sentenced on 12 October but the news was reported only a few days ago.

The cleric was convicted “Because he accepted an invitation to lead prayers in the courtyard of the Hagia Sophia Mosque in Turkey,” Prisoners of Conscience twitted. At the time, the basilica-cum-mosque was still a museum. “We condemn the ruling,” the NGO said, “and we call on the authorities to release him unconditionally”.

One of the kingdom's most influential clerics, Abdullah Basfar taught Islamic and Sharia studies at King Abdulaziz University in Jeddah.

Yet, even though he was a respected figure, in 2020 he became one of the many targets of the repressive policy of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman since the 2014 prayer in Hagia Sophia had gone viral online.

Basfar, who has been in pre-trial custody for the past two years, was allegedly harassed and abused during questioning.

Saudi authorities have never clearly indicated the reasons for his arrest, but it is suspected that they wanted to punish him for leading a prayer in Turkey.

At the time (2014), relations between the two countries were very tense, the more so following the killing in 2018 of Saudi dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi on bin Salman’s order. More recently though, the two dominant Sunni countries have patched up their differences.

Like the Chora church, Hagia Sophia became a museum by decree (in 1934) under then Turkish President Kemal Ataturk. In 2020, it was turned back into a mosque. Last April, the first prayers for Ramadan were held in the UNESCO World Heritage Site.

This is part of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s Islamo-nationalist policies, especially at a time when he was trying to divert public attention away from the country’s economic crisis and retain power.

Following the decision by Turkey’s Council of State to overturn the decree, Islamic authorities covered the images of Jesus, as well as Christian frescoes and icons with a white curtain, triggering an international political-religious controversy.

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