Call it a prayer answered or a new step toward a "normal" Turkey, but the construction of a mosque in Istanbul's Taksim Square finally began on Friday. The city's mayor and other officials laid the groundwork for the mosque that hit a bureaucratic snag in the past checkered with opposition to the construction in the Muslim-majority country.
Right on a spot where riot police stand guard in the square, perhaps the most famous place in Istanbul, trucks carrying cement and construction workers swarmed the site along with a crowd including clerics.
Although it is one of the busiest spots in Istanbul, situated next to the famous İstiklal Avenue, Taksim Square had only two small mosques located a few hundred meters away that failed to respond to the needs of the faithful. It was deemed "unnecessary" by past governments, and any attempt to build it had faced fierce opposition from the secular elite that viewed it as "Islamization" of the place, despite high demand from practicing Muslims.
Mayor Kadir Topbaş, who tried to build it in the 1970s as member of an association founded with the purpose of constructing the mosque, lamented the absence of the mosque for years as he pushed a button to pour cement on the site at the inauguration ceremony. Pointing to nearby St. Mary, an ancient Roman Catholic Church, Topbaş said both places of worship overlooking the square would reflect the culture of tolerance of Istanbul. "Taksim was in need of a mosque for decades. For a long time, problems of the congregation that had to pray outside the smaller mosques here were ignored," he said. Topbaş said a mosque is a basic need like other social spaces. He said it did not view it as "a victory for a cause" but rather "formation of an understanding on a humane need."
The mosque was approved in January by the Board of Preservation of Cultural Monuments, which oversees construction in preserved, historic sites, clearing the final hurdle for the construction long championed by President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan since his work as the city's mayor in the 1990s.
The mosque will be a larger alternative to two small mosques that barely have the capacity to house a few hundred people. It will be built on a space of 2,482 square meters.
Designed by two Turkish architects in an art deco style, it will be capable of hosting about 1,000 people for prayers. The triple-story mosque will have an underground parking lot as well as a conference and exhibition hall.
Building a larger mosque in the square has long been an issue with successive governments since the 1960s. When a high court rejected plans for its construction in 1983, plans were shelved for a long time.
Erdoğan, who was elected the city's mayor in 1994, had repeatedly sought for the construction of the mosque though it faced opposition. The president last called for the construction of a mosque in that area a few months ago, while authorities were in the planning phase of a thorough renovation of Taksim Square, which will be entirely closed to traffic during this time.
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