West News Wire: A human rights watchdog claimed on Thursday that a Saudi court sentenced a sheikh to 12 years in prison after he led prayers on the grounds of the Hagia Sophia in Istanbul several years ago.

Abdullah Basfar, a Saudi imam and Quran reader, was tried and found guilty on Wednesday “in the context of accepting an invitation to lead worshipers in the courtyard of the Hagia Sophia mosque in Turkey,” according to the Saudi rights group Prisoners of Conscience.

The monitor said, “We criticize the decision and we urge the authorities to immediately release him.”

Previously serving as an associate professor of Sharia and Islamic studies at King Abdulaziz University in Jeddah, Basfar was a well-known religious leader in the nation.

He was arrested in August 2020, after video of him leading prayers at the famous Istanbul mosque back in 2014 spread online, according to Prisoners of Conscience.

He was held in pre-trial detention for two years, in which time he was harassed by interrogators.

It is unclear exactly what charges Basfar was convicted on.

His leading of prayer at the mosque in 2014 came during a deep low in Saudi-Turkish diplomatic relations.

Ties between the two countries had taken a massive hit a year earlier, after a military coup spearheaded by Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi ousted Egypt’s first democratically elected president, Mohamed Morsi.

Diplomatic relations had been broken off for years, until Ankara and Riyadh began talks to resume ties in 2021.

Basfar’s leading of the prayers took place when the historic Hagia Sophia was still a museum, before it was turned into a mosque by Turkish authorities in 2020.

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The Hagia Sophia was founded as a Christian church under the Byzantine Empire in the sixth century but later became a mosque following the Ottoman conquest of Istanbul.

It was converted into a museum in 1935, after the founding of the secular Turkish republic but after a long campaign by Turkish conservatives, it was turned back into a mosque in 2020.

The decision was met with outrage from Turkey’s neigbour Greece and disapproval from Western countries and Russia.

Saudi Arabia is notorious for its detention and hefty sentencing of activists and political opponents.

Earlier this month, a Saudi court sentenced three men who protested expulsions from land where the NEOM megacity is being built to death.


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