By Melih Aslan and Osman Orsal
ISTANBUL (Reuters) – Construction began on Friday of a mosque in Istanbul’s central Taksim square, a controversial project championed by Turkey’s President Tayyip Erdogan but mired in years of court battles and public debate.
Cranes moved into the site and first cement was poured at a modest ground-breaking ceremony on the edge of the square, long a rallying point for demonstrations, as riot police with armoured vehicles and water cannon stood guard.
The square was at the heart of large anti-government protests in June 2013, when hundreds of thousands of people took to the streets to protest a plan to build a replica Ottoman barracks on the adjoining Gezi park.
Plans for a mosque at Taksim have been discussed for decades, with supporters arguing there are not enough Muslim places of worship close to one of the city’s busiest hubs.
“As someone who spent his life in Taksim, I have always felt the lack of a mosque here,” Ahmet Misbah Demircan, mayor of the surrounding Beyoglu district, said at the ceremony. “I know that all Muslims who live in or come to Beyoglu share this feeling.”
Erdogan, himself a devout Muslim who served as mayor of Istanbul in the 1990s, has long argued for a mosque at Taksim.