Opposition MP slams top imam for making political statements

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Engin Özkoç, deputy group chairman of the main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP), has criticized President of Turkey’s Religious Affairs Directorate (Diyanet) Ali Erbaş for his recent controversial remarks amounting to political speech, local media reported on Friday.

Erbaş has been under fire lately over his statements including criticism of Turks’ approach to Islam and comments regarding how they should use social media outlets, topics considered by many to be unbefitting a top cleric.

“People are hungry while you enjoy yourself. You’re hurting the public conscience with the statements you make in places you go to in your [luxury] car. Don’t do it,” Özkoç said during a press meeting at the parliament.

“You’re not the spokesperson of the presidency. You’re the one who should explain our religion [Islam] to us correctly. Stop being a tool [of the government] and do jour job,” the CHP lawmaker added, addressing Erbaş.

Erbaş also attracted criticism for accompanying President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and Mehmet Akarca, president of the Supreme Court of Appeals, during a ceremony marking the opening of a new service building for the court and the start of 2021-2022 judicial year on Sept. 1.

Akarca, Erdoğan and Erbaş stood side by side during the ceremony in which Akarca in his judge’s robe joined the top imam’s prayers marking the new judicial year, a scene slammed by many for violating the principle of secularism.

The top imam targeted his critics during an event in the central province of Aksaray last week, accusing them of saying “Religious belief shouldn’t be on the streets, but rather in people. Let it stay between the individual and God and not interfere with one’s home, business, politics, sense of justice and judgment.”

Such controversial remarks landed Erbaş under more hot water as a large number of people, including opposition party members, former civil servants, prominent journalists and academics, in addition to social media users argued that he was speaking like a politician rather than a cleric.

Veteran journalist Uğur Dündar recently indicated that Erbaş’s recent statements reveal that he actually wants to do politics, while Sözcü daily columnist Deniz Zeyrek claimed that the top imam sees himself as “tailor-made” for the presidency after Erdoğan leaves office.

Cumhuriyet columnist Mustafa Balbay last week quoted a source from the Religious Affairs Directorate as saying that Erdoğan wants Erbaş’ opinion on every matter, every step he takes, and that as a result, the directorate has been becoming more and more powerful.

The budget allocated by the state to the Religious Affairs Directorate for 2021 is TL 12.9 billion ($1.5 billion), which is higher than that of seven ministries, while the presidency has a budget of TL 4.039 billion ($476 million) for the same year.

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