ISTANBUL // A government plan to build a giant mosque on an Istanbul hill overlooking the Bosphorus has fanned concerns among secularist Turks that Recep Tayyip Erdogan's ruling party is steering the secular republic towards an Islamist system.
Work on the new mosque, which is to have six minarets and occupy an area of 15,000 square meters on Camlica, a hill on the Asian side of the Turkish metropolis, is expected to begin this month. Mr Erdogan, the prime minister and leader of the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), has said that the aim was to finish the project within two and a half years.
That announcement has secular critics of the Erdogan government worried.
"There are many places to build a mosque in Istanbul, but they want to send a message," Mehmet Ali Ediboglu, a legislator of the secularist Republican People's Party (CHP), Turkey's biggest opposition group, said by telephone yesterday.
"That message is that they want to erect an Islamic republic in place of the secular system. They do that step by step."
Erdogan Bayraktar, the minister for construction in Mr Erdogan's cabinet and a member of the AKP, told the Hurriyet newspaper last month that the project had political significance.
"The aim of building the Camlica mosque is to create a work symbolising the era of AKP rule," Mr Bayraktar said.
Since coming to power more than ten years ago, the AKP, an offshoot of a banned Islamist party, has been accused by secular groups of following a hidden agenda with the aim of turning Turkey into an Islamist state, a charge the party denies.
The AKP says that it has repeatedly won solid parliamentary majorities for its policies and that it has boosted basic rights of citizens in the last ten years, not limited them.
Although Mr Erdogan's party has won three consecutive parliamentary elections since 2002 with a steadily rising share of votes that reached almost 50 per cent at the poll two years ago, plans for the Camlica mosque have rekindled the debate about where he wants to take Turkey.
Mr Ediboglu said the government was trying to win local, parliamentary and presidential elections in 2014 and 2015 by exploiting the religious feelings of voters.
"This is not piety, this is doing politics with religion," he said. Mr Ediboglu said the AKP's decision to end the ban of the headscarf for female students at Turkey's universities a few years ago had served the same aim.
Istanbul has a rich heritage of Muslim, Christian and Jewish history and is home to two of the most famous Ottoman mosques in the world, the Blue Mosque and the Suleymaniye Mosque. The Hagia Sophia, a Byzantine church built 1,500 years ago, served as the principal Ottoman mosque for centuries, but was turned into a museum after the founding of the republic in 1923.
The new mosque will overshadow some of Istanbul's famous houses of worship by its sheer size, critics say. The Blue Mosque is the only mosque with six minarets in Istanbul's central area so far. A newly-built mosque in the outlying disctrict of Arnavutkoy has six minarets as well, but is far from the inner city.
On Camlica, the area surrounding the mosque will cover a total of 250,000 square meters and feature a museum, a cafe, children's playgrounds, a platform offering a view of Istanbul and a park, Mustafa Kara, the mayor of Uskudar, the Istanbul district that includes Camlica, told a television interviewer last month.
"It is a big project," he said, adding that the order to build the mosque had come from the ministry for construction in Ankara. "When we received the plans, we were very excited," Mr Kara, who is a member of the AKP, said in the interview.
According to news reports, Mr Erdogan personally ordered some changes to the design of the mosque. The reports put the cost of the project at 100m Lira (Dh204m). There has been no official statement about the cost.
The prime minister announced the Camlica mosque project last year and immediately angered critics by declaring his government was building a mosque "that can be seen from everywhere in Istanbul".
The CHP in Uskudar and Turkey's Chamber of Architects have turned to the courts to stop the project. "The plan will bring with it a destruction of the Istanbul and the Bosphorus silhouette," the chamber said in a statement.
Other critics point out that no one in Uskudar had asked for a mosque to be built on the hill in the first place.
Canan Gullu, president of the Federation of Turkish Women's Associations and an outspoken critic of the Erdogan government, said there was "no shortage of mosques" in the country.
"Our prime minister wants to erect a monument to himself and the AKP," Ms Gullu said by telephone yesterday. She added that the project was also a sign that under Mr Erdogan, Turkey was turning more and more towards the Muslim world.
"A mosque that can be seen from every point in Istanbul will be a clear message to the Middle East," she said. "The AKP has stressed the fact that Turkey is a Muslim country in certain areas ever since 2002. If that is modernity, I don't want to see it."
But it remains unclear whether the worries about the Camlica mosque would have any effect on the project itself.
Mr Ediboglu, the CHP politician, said the AKP was looking only at its own grass roots and was not interested in what other parts of society felt.
"Concern about the AKP is growing" in Turkish society as a whole, he said. "But they want votes, they want to stay in power. They are only watching their own followers."