Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Turkey works on plan regarding Kurdish conflict

July 29, 2009
Associated Press


ANKARA, Turkey — Turkey's government said Wednesday it is prepared to grant more rights to the nation's Kurds in an effort to end the 25-year insurgency by Kurdish rebels.

But Interior Minister Besir Atalay provided no details of the plan and despite his conciliatory language the challenge of persuading thousands of Kurdish rebels to lay down their arms is likely to be long and difficult.

The rebels want an unconditional amnesty that includes their leaders, but the government has said it had no plans to expand laws that enable lower-ranking rebels to avoid prison by renouncing their past and sharing intelligence.

Kurdish activists have said imprisoned rebel leader Abdullah Ocalan will announce a "roadmap" to end the conflict ahead of Aug. 15, the date when the guerrillas first took up arms in 1984. They are fighting for autonomy in Turkey's southeast, and the conflict that has killed tens of thousands of people. Many of the insurgents' attacks are launched from hideouts in northern Iraq.

Turkey has refused talks with the rebel group _the Kurdistan Workers Party — but has acknowledged that military action alone will not end the conflict. The United States and the European Union have joined Turkey in labeling the group a terrorist organization.

"Come on and join this process, let's solve this problem that has cost so much and seized our future," Atalay said at a nationally televised news conference Wednesday. "We have the intention to take determined, patient and courageous steps."
He said the government was working on a plan to give more rights to Kurds, and he invited opposition parties and institutions to contribute to a national consensus.

Atalay did not give a timeframe for a Kurdish initiative, saying details would be disclosed by Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Under pressure from the EU, Turkey has granted greater cultural rights to Kurds, including the launch earlier this year of a 24-hour television channel broadcasting in the once-banned Kurdish language.

Private NTV television said Wednesday that the government's plan may include moves to allow the use of Kurdish names for thousands of villages whose names had been changed to Turkish, allow Kurdish prisoners to speak in their mother tongue during prison visits, expand Kurdish language broadcasts to private TV stations and set up Kurdish language faculties.

Some Kurds welcomed the government's initiative.

"We will fulfill our responsibilities," said Sirri Sakik, a lawmaker from the pro-Kurdish Democratic Society Party. "It is the common problem of everyone living in this country."

But the party's leader, Ahmet Turk, insisted that Turkey must end its military drive against the rebels.

"Operations must stop," Turk said. "The problem is multidimensional and no time should be wasted."

Mehmet Emin Aktar, the head of the Bar Association in the largely Kurdish southeastern city of Diyarbakir, said: "No one has patience for more blood and tears."

Turkey's far-right Nationalist Action Party accused the government of offering concessions.

"This initiative threatens the future of Turkey. It is dividing the country along ethnic lines and preparing the ground for negotiations with the terrorists," said Oktay Vural, a senior lawmaker of the Action Party. "The more demands are met, the more they will ask for."

Monday, July 27, 2009

After 25 years of conflict, Turkey makes overtures to Kurds

July 27, 2009

By Dorian Jones

Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan announced last week that his government was working on steps to solve the Kurdish conflict, which has claimed over 40,000 lives.

"Whether we call it the Kurdish, the southeast or eastern problem, whether we call it the Kurdish initiative, we have started work on this," Erdogan told a news conference before departing on a trip to Syria.

He did not say when the plan would be announced or what it might entail, but did say the interior ministry was already discussing the issue with other branches of government including the military and the national intelligence agency.

Abdurrahman Kurt, a Kurdish member of parliament for the ruling the AK party, said his government would deliver further concessions to Kurds.

"We are going to open Kurdish language institutes in the universities and we are allowing Kurdish names to be given to the children and Kurdish broadcasting," he told Deutsche Welle's correspondent in Istanbul.

However, Erdogan has ruled out including the country's main Kurdish party, the Democratic Society Party (DTP), in the peace initiative until they denounce the outlawed Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) as terrorists.

DTP parliamentary leader Emine Ayna says peace efforts cannot succeed without her party's participation.

"There is a problem when you talk about this, not with the Kurds, but with the chief of the army and intelligence and your ministers," she told Deutsche Welle.
Political maneuvers

The government's move is seen as a reaction to a plan expected to be put forward by the jailed separatist leader Abdullah Ocalan on August 15. That is the date 25 years ago when the PKK took up arms against the state.

Ocalan's lawyers contacted academics and journalists this month to plug his plans for a "road map." Details have not been released, but the Turkish newspaper Sabah reported that it would include a ceasefire, an unconditional amnesty for PKK fighters, Kurdish-language education and moves towards greater autonomy.

Ocalan has been in prison since 1999. Originally sentenced to death, his punishment was commuted to life in 2002 when the death penalty was abolished due to pressure from the European Union, which Turkey is eager to join.

Ever since his capture, the 61-year-old has said the PKK is ready to disarm if Turkey is prepared to negotiate.

Though his calls have received little attention over the past decade, the approaching anniversary of the conflict and his anticipated road map have generated interest in a man still reviled by most Turks as a terrorist, but respected by many Kurds as a freedom fighter.

In recent years, Turkey's government has softened its hard line on Kurds, bowing to some of the demands that have added fuel to the insurgency. Ankara has allowed children to be officially registered with Kurdish names, tightened anti-torture laws, and allowed some Kurdish-language teaching.

However, fighting has persisted with the PKK using northern Iraq as a base for cross-border operations.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Women take lead in building mosque in Turkey

July 14, 2009

By Ivan Watson

ISTANBUL, Turkey (CNN) -- There is a shiny addition among the Ottoman mosques and palaces that make up Istanbul's stunning skyline: the metallic, mirrored dome of the new Sakirin Mosque, a Muslim place of worship built with a woman's touch.

For what may be the first time in history, women have been at the forefront of the construction of a mosque in Turkey.

One of the project's leaders is Zeynep Fadillioglu, an interior decorator who has designed restaurants, hotels and luxury homes from New Delhi, India, to Abu Dhabi in the United Arab Emirates, and London, England.

She helped organize a team of traditional mosque artists specializing in Islamic calligraphy, along with craftsmen in glassworks, metal-casting and lighting who, like Fadillioglu, have built careers working in exclusively secular architecture and design.

"I want people to feel peaceful and be left with themselves as much as possible and yet have beautiful art and artistic symbolism around them," she said.

Istanbul has a venerable tradition of mosque architecture, dating back centuries to when Ottoman sultans declared themselves caliph, or spiritual leader of the Muslim world.

The shores of the Bosporus Strait are studded with 16th century masterpieces such as the Suleymaniye Mosque, built by the Ottoman Empire's most famous architect, Mimar Sinan, and ornate, neo-Baroque jewels designed by the Armenian Balyan family in the 19th century. But Istanbul's most senior Muslim cleric laments that mosque design suffered a decline after the collapse of the Ottoman Empire in the wake of World War I.

"In the last 70, 80 years, we have built mosques that are copies of Ottoman architecture," said Mustafa Cagrici, the mufti of Istanbul. "This wasn't a good development, because the copy can never be as good as the original."

Fadillioglu and her team of artists are hoping to change that.

The Sakirin Mosque was commissioned by a wealthy Turkish Arab family and built in one of Istanbul's oldest cemeteries.

The designers put a number of contemporary touches on the structure, giving it plate glass walls etched with gold-leaf verses from the Quran, framed by giant cast-iron grids.

The mihrab -- the alcove that points worshippers in the direction of Mecca -- is made of asymmetrical ovals, similar to a design used by Fadillioglu to decorate a restaurant in London. And the chandelier is a multi-layered series of metal and plexiglass rings, carrying Quranic inscriptions and dripping with scores of delicate glass teardrops.

"The glass chandelier brings the high dome down to the people," Fadillioglu explained. "So when they pray and kneel they don't feel lost with the light and it shelters them."

Many of the artists here never worked on a mosque before.

"It's special that a woman's hand is involved in this," said one of them, a male carpenter named Metin Cekeroglu. "If you think about it, a home is made by woman. And if we think about this place as a home of God, we can also say women will make this place much better."

Fadillioglu said one of her goals was to bring extra attention into the design of the women's section of the mosque, an area that she says is often neglected by architects. According to Islamic tradition, worshippers are segregated by gender at mosques.

"I have seen mosques where women have been pushed to the worst part of stairs, cramped area. Sort of as if (they are) unwanted in the mosque," she said. "That is not what Islam is about. ... Women are equal in Islam to men"

Five minutes' drive from the Sakirin Mosque stands the Mihrimah Sultan Mosque, a 16th century structure built by Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent in honor of his favorite daughter.

Unfortunately, female worshippers do not get to enjoy its stunning stained glass windows the way the men do. They have to pray in a small women's section, hidden behind a bank of chest-high shelves that store shoes.

At the Sakirin Mosque, Fadillioglu said, she gave women praying on the balcony an unobstructed view of the dome, the ornate chandelier, and the area on the floor where the imam will lead prayers.

"I would like to come here to pray," said Elif Demir, an 18-year old art student with a funky, orange-dyed haircut who was working on the chandelier. "This mosque is completely different because of the light that's coming through the walls, through the glass."

Fadillioglu's role in the Sakirin Mosque is all the more surprising because she comes from a jet-set side of Turkish society not normally associated with Islam.

"It is unusual," she conceded, "because first of all not many modern people have been commissioned to design a mosque."

She spoke in a recent interview at Ulus 29, the expensive Istanbul hilltop restaurant and bar that is owned by her husband. Amid the Ottoman- and Selcuk-inspired flourishes she has sprinkled around the restaurant are echoes of designs seen at the Sakirin Mosque. A glass chandelier made of hundreds of crystal tear drops hangs above the bar, similar in style to the mosque's chandelier.
Fadillioglu said being a night club owner does not prevent her from also being a Muslim.

"You might be surprised in Turkey to find some very modern-looking people being very religious at the same time," she said.

Religion is a hot-button political issue in Turkey, a predominantly Muslim country with a strict secular system of government.

For the past eight years a fierce power struggle has been under way between an urban secular elite and a rising new class of religiously conservative Turks from the Anatolian heartlands.

Unlike the wives of Turkey's Islamic-rooted president and prime minister, Fadillioglu does not wear the Islamic headscarf that is often seen as the symbol of this new class of Turks.

Fadillioglu said politics have polarized society.

"In my childhood ... you didn't differentiate between who was religious," she explained. "Whoever wants to worship or visit this mosque, its open, its ready for them."

On May 8, Turkey's prime minister attended an inauguration ceremony for the Sakirin Mosque.

Afterward, in an interview with CNN, the mufti of Istanbul called it the start of a new era of mosque design in Turkey.

"It is in Islamic tradition for women to commission mosques ... and now we have women who are building mosques as well," Cagrici said. "God willing, I hope the world will see more of these beautiful mosques, touched by women's hands."

Monday, July 13, 2009

EU nations, Turkey sign major pipeline deal

By Hande Culpan
Agence France-Presse

ANKARA (AFP) — Four EU countries and Turkey signed an accord Monday on building a major US-backed gas pipeline to reduce European reliance on Russia amid lingering uncertainty on who will supply the gas.

The prime ministers of Austria, Bulgaria, Hungary, Romania and Turkey, inked the intergovernmental accord, hailing it as a milestone in the Nabucco pipeline project, long delayed by lack of commitment from gas-exporting nations.

The 3,300-kilometre (2,000-mile) conduit is planned to become operational in 2014 at an estimated cost of 7.9 billion euros (10.9 billion dollars), with a capacity to pump 31 billion cubic metres of gas from the Caspian Sea to Austria via Turkey and the Balkans, bypassing Russia.

The project "is of crucial importance for EU's and Turkey's energy security," European Commission chief Jose Manuel Barroso said at the ceremony.

"Sometime ago people said the project would not go ahead. I believe this pipeline is now inevitable rather than just probable," he said.

Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan voiced confidence that "the more steps we take (on realising the project), the more the interest of supplier countries will grow."

His Hungarian counterpart Gordon Bajnai warned of "extremely difficult moments in the coming years that will require the highest level of commitment."

Azerbaijan is seen as the primary potential provider of gas for the conduit, with Turkmenistan, Iraq and Egypt also mentioned for the long term.

Azerbaijan insists it has enough reserves for the conduit. But last month it raised concerns among Nabucco proponents, signing a deal to export gas to Russia starting in 2010.

The Nabucco project aims to avoid a repetition of cut-offs that have disrupted Russian supplies to Europe during the winter, with Moscow accused of using the gas as a political weapon.

A quarter of all gas used in Europe comes from Russia, with several southern European countries depending almost exclusively on Russian supplies.

"Russia is expected not to hinder directly or indirectly the Nabucco project," said Bulgarian premier Sergey Stanishev, whose country was among the hardest hit by the cut-offs.

Nabucco is in direct competition with Russia's South Stream project, which will carry Russian gas through Bulgaria to Western Europe under the Black Sea.

The project appeared to get a boost Friday when Turkmenistan said it was prepared to supply Nabucco with gas, despite its earlier reluctance.

And Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, who attended Monday's gathering here, said his country might contribute 15 billion cubic meters of gas.

But a US official cast doubt on the proposal, pointing at lingering disputes over natural resources between Baghdad and the Iraqi Kurds, who control oil- and gas-rich northern Iraq.

Iraq "needs some time to figure out how it is going to develop its natural resources and where it will sell that gas," Matthew Bryza, US deputy assistant secretary of state for European and Eurasian affairs, told reporters.

Iran is another possible supplier, but both the United States and the EU are opposed to its participation.

Still, Erdogan insisted Monday that Iran and even Russia might join the project "when conditions allow" in the long term.

Two European banks have expressed readiness to finance the project, but analysts say securing the cost could be difficult in the global economic slowdown and uncertainty over suppliers.

The project has been delayed also by Turkish demands to use 15 percent of Nabucco's gas for domestic use or even for re-export.

EU officials said Ankara's concerns were to be addressed by an arrangement under which the pipeline would operate both ways, giving Turkey access to European stockpiles in times of need.

Erdogan said the pipeline "will elevate Turkey to a significant position" for European energy security and help boost its struggling EU membership bid.

Barroso praised Turkey's role, saying the project "could open the door to a new era in relations between Turkey and the EU, and beyond."

The pipeline's shareholders are Austria's OMV, Turkey's Botas, Bulgaria's Bulgargaz, Hungary's MOL, Romania's Transgaz and Germany's RWE.

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Sweden shows support for Turkey's EU bid as it takes over bloc's helm

Hurriyet Daily News
July 1, 2009

ISTANBUL - Sweden took over the six-month rotating presidency of the European Union on Wednesday, as its ambassador to Turkey reiterated his country's support for Ankara in its membership bid to the 27-nation bloc.

Sweden, who took over the rotating EU presidency from the Czech Republic, will continue to support Turkey until the day it becomes a full member of the European Union, the country's ambassador in Ankara Christer Asp told the state-run Anatolian Agency.

"I think that it is wrong to only look at how many chapters have been opened for negotiations," Asp said. "What is crucial is the continuation of negotiations. It is important to meet the conditions and criteria in order to open new chapters of negotiations."

Turkey, which began accession talks in 2005, on Tuesday opened talks on taxation, one of the 35 policy negotiating areas – or chapters – all would-be members have to complete before joining.

Ankara has now formally opened 11 chapters. Eight other chapters have been frozen since 2006 due to a customs dispute with Greek Cypriots. France is blocking another five chapters directly linked to EU membership.

Asp said Sweden is ready to open all negotiating areas with Turkey, but added the chapters remaining to be opened are the most difficult ones.

He also said he has no doubt that Turkey will become a full member of the EU, adding it would be a strategic error not to let Turkey into the bloc.

Swedish officials recently expressed support for Turkey's long-running membership bid, as the Nordic country has said it is determined to continue progress in Turkey’s accession negotiations.