(CNSNews.com) – Turkey’s Islamist president is using last week’s mass shooting at two mosques in New Zealand as an election campaign prop, airing excerpts of the graphic video filmed by the shooter and making dark references to Australian and New Zealanders’ role in a military campaign in Turkey a century ago.
President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s provocative tactics have drawn sharp from criticism from the two governments.
Campaigning ahead of local government elections on March 31, Erdogan this week invoked both national and religious sentiment, telling cheering supporters that anyone traveling to Turkey with ill intent would meet the fate handed out to their “grandfathers.”
“You came to Gallipoli from 16,500 kilometers away” the Hurriyet daily quoted him as telling one rally, on Tuesday. “What were you doing here? You showed up from Australia. After all these years, they still have hatred against us. The only reason is we’re Muslims, they are Christians.”
At another rally a day earlier, at Canakkale near Gallipoli, Erdogan was quoted as saying that “the enemies of Muslims have shown that they continue to hate us.”
“They are testing us by sending a message from New Zealand, from 16,500 kilometers away,” he said in reference to last Friday’s attacks at two mosques in Christchurch.
The accused gunman, 28-year-old Australian, Brenton Tarrant, has been charged in connection with the attack, which cost the lives of 50 people.
“Your grandfathers came here and saw that we were here, and then some returned … in coffins,” Erdogan continued, clearly referencing the Gallipoli campaign.
“If you come here with the same intentions, then we are waiting for you. Have no doubt, we will send you back like we did your grandfathers.”
More than 8,000 Australians and 2,700 New Zealanders died when Allied forces launched an assault on the Turkish peninsula in April 2015, in a drive aimed at disabling a key German ally and shortening the war.
Erdogan’s comments come just weeks before large numbers of Australians and New Zealanders are expected to visit Gallipoli for annual “Anzac Day” commemorations.
The Australian government is reviewing travel advice for Turkey, and New Zealand has issued a general caution to citizens abroad, saying that international reactions to the attack “are difficult to predict and may change at short notice.”
Responding to Erdogan’s remarks, New Zealand’s foreign minister, Winston Peters, said it was “totally unfair” to blame New Zealand for the actions of a non-New Zealand citizen, and expressed concern about the potential risks to New Zealanders traveling abroad.
He also condemned the screening, at rallies on Monday and Tuesday, of excerpts of the video filmed by the shooter during the attack and livestreamed on social media. Excerpts of a manifesto posted online by Tarrant were also featured at Erdogan rallies.
Peters, who met with a visiting Turkish delegation earlier, is due to travel to Turkey in the coming days – in his words, “to put the record straight.” While there he is expected to attend a special meeting in Istanbul on Friday of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC), called at the request of Turkey, Iran and several others, to respond to the Christchurch attack.
In Canberra, meanwhile, Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison called in the Turkish ambassador on Wednesday morning to protest Erdogan’s comments, which he told Australian television before the meeting were “very offensive,” unhelpful and inaccurate.
“I find the responsibility in these situations – of all leaders – is to take the temperature down,” he said, adding that in his own response he was not seeking to escalate the situation.
After meeting with Ambassador Korhan Karakoc, however, Morrison seemed dissatisfied, telling reporters that he did “not accept the excuses that have been offered for those comments.”
Erdogan has made much of the fact Tarrant visited Turkey in recent years. (He claimed in his manifesto to have traveled to many countries.)
The lengthy manifesto also included remarks threatening Erdogan (as well as German Chancellor Angela Merkel and London Mayor Sadiq Khan) and saying that Turks should stay on the Asian side of their country, which straddles Europe and Asia.
The manifesto speaks of “liberating” the Hagia Sophia, the famous historical building in Istanbul which served variously as an Orthodox and Catholic cathedral until the 15th century, when the Ottomans began using it as a mosque. It was declared a museum in the 1930s.
Hurriyet reports that Erdogan also told supporters that if New Zealand doesn’t make Tarrant “pay” for his crimes, “one way or another we will make you pay.”
“You have nefariously, perfidiously and vulgarly killed 50 of our praying brothers,” he said. “You will pay for this. If New Zealand fails to do so, one way or another, we will make you pay for it.”
‘Spreading more hate’
Erdogan’s comments also drew flak from Armenian communities in Australia and New Zealand.
“What Erdogan is doing is responding to a hate crime by spreading more hate,” said Haig Kayserian, executive director of the Armenian National Committee of Australia.
Hoory Yeldizian, who chairs the equivalent body in New Zealand, contrasted Erdogan’s remarks with what he called the “exemplary empathy and strong leadership” taken by New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern since the massacre.
Some 1.5 million Armenians were killed in 1915 and the following years in Turkey during World War I. Armenians around the world mark April 24, 1915 – one day before Allied troops landed at Gallipoli – as the date the atrocities began.
Erdogan has a record of inflammatory nationalist and religious rhetoric during political campaigns.
Ahead of a 2017 referendum on constitutional changes giving him sweeping new powers, he accused some European governments of acting like Nazis, portrayed Europe as anti-Islam, and encouraged Turks living in Europe to have lots of children, describing them as continent’s “future.”
In an op-ed in the Washington Post on Tuesday, Erdogan urged Western societies and governments to “reject the normalization of racism, xenophobia and Islamophobia, which has been on the rise in recent years.”