With a recitation from the Quran, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan Friday kicked off the first Muslim prayer service in Hagia Sophia since Ataturk's secular regime converted it into a museum 86 years ago. About 1,000 attended the service inside Hagia Sophia while an estimated 350,000 prayed around it. Turkish Minister of Religious Affairs Ali Erbas brandished a sword and proclaimed, "Sultan Mehmet the Conqueror dedicated this magnificent construction to believers to remain a mosque until the Day of Resurrection." At hundreds of churches across Greece bells tolled and flags flew at half-mast to protest the conversion of Hagia Sophia, which served for almost a millennium as Constantinople's patriarchal cathedral, into a mosque. Greek government spokesman Stelios Petsas told Open TV that transforming Hagia Sophia into a mosque "will create an unbridgeable gap between Turkey and the Christian world." Ieronymos II, the Archbishop of Athens and All Greece, meanwhile denounced the conversion as an "ungodly defiling act." Erdogan's government was empowered to convert Hagia Sophia into a mosque when Turkey's top administrative court, the Turkish Council of State, annulled on July 10 the 1934 Cabinet decree that turned Hagia Sophia into a museum. The court ruled that, since Ottoman Sultan Mehmet II gave the Hagia Sophia Mosque Foundation title to the church after conquering Constantinople and the building's deed identifies it as a mosque, the cabinet lacked the authority to designate it as a museum.
US Africa Command (AFRICOM) published a press release Friday accusing Russian military cargo aircraft of continuing to supply the Wagner Group, a Moscow-aligned private military company fighting alongside Khalifa Haftar's Libyan National Army (LNA), with a "type and volume of equipment [that] demonstrates an intent toward sustained offensive combat." The press release included overhead imagery of Wagner forces and equipment around Sirte, the Libyan civil war's current frontline. Last weekend the Turkish-backed Government of National Accord (GNA) dispatched additional military vehicles to central Libya as part of an operation to capture Sirte and al-Jufra airbase. Egypt's parliament on Monday unanimously authorized deploying the armed forces in Libya, giving teeth to President Abdel Fatah al-Sisi's June 20 warning that GNA troops entering Sirte or al-Jufra would cross a red line that might trigger direct Egyptian military intervention.
The Canadian Transportation Safety Board issued a statement Thursday saying France's Bureau of Enquiry and Analysis for Civil Aviation Safety completed a preliminary investigative analysis of the black boxes from Ukraine International Airlines Flight 752, which the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps shot down last January. However, the board's chair, Katy Fox, stated that "there are still many key questions that need to be answered." Of the 176 people killed in the crash, 55 were Canadian citizens and 30 permanent residents. Ukrainian Deputy Foreign Minister Yevhenii Yenin tweeted Friday: "Black boxes from #PS752 were read out and deciphered successfully. The transcript confirmed the fact of illegal interference with the plane. We are waiting for the Iranian side for the first round of talks next week." Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy in February rejected Tehran's compensation offer of $80,000 per victim as insufficient.
Iraqi security forces Friday morning freed German arts curator Hella Mewis, who was kidnapped in Baghdad last Monday near the art collective she helped found. Like Hisham al-Hashemi, a prominent terrorism expert murdered on July 6 by unidentified gunmen, Mewis supported the protest movement that forced the pro-Iranian former Prime Minister Adil Abdul-Mahdi to resign in November 2019. No one claimed responsibility for Mewis's abduction and an Interior Ministry spokesman said her captors escaped, but an investigation is underway to apprehend them. Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi has faced pushback since launching a campaign last month to crack down on pro-Iranian Iraqi militias, Kataib Hezbollah (KH) spokesman Mohammed Mohie threatening al-Kadhimi with "escalation" if he authorizes any more raids on KH camps.
Israeli attack helicopters struck several Syrian military targets just over the border Friday night after shrapnel earlier in the day hit a home and car in the Druze town of Majdal Shams on the Golan Heights. Syrian state news agency SANA reported that the operation injured two soldiers and damaged three sites. The violence coincided with Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Mark Milley's visit to Israel for discussions about the COVID-19 pandemic as well as regional security challenges.
Micah Levinson is the Washington, DC Resident Fellow at the Middle East Forum