A diplomatic spat between Turkey and Australia over the mosque massacre in New Zealand appeared to ease on Thursday after controversial comments by the Turkish leader were said to be “taken out of context”.
Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison said tensions between his country and Turkey had lowered after President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s office addressed his statements surrounding the deadly attack.
The dispute flared over Erdogan’s comments in the wake of last Friday’s gun massacre, in which 50 people were killed at two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand. An Australian white supremacist has been charged with murder.
Speaking while campaigning for local elections, Erdogan warned Australians and New Zealanders going to Turkey with anti-Muslim views would return home in coffins, like their ancestors who fought at Gallipoli in World War I.
The 1915 Gallipoli campaign, marked by heavy casualties on both sides, was a disastrous defeat for the allies against the then Ottoman Empire. Although the battle later helped cement friendship among the three countries, it remains a highly sensitive subject in Australia and New Zealand.
Australia, Turkey in row after Christchurch massacres
Morrison slammed the comments as “highly offensive,” and on Wednesday summoned Turkish Ambassador to Australia, Korhan Karakoc, to explain the remarks.
Australia also placed under review its travel advisory for its citizens visiting Turkey, which was already set at “exercise a high degree of caution” because of the threat of “terrorism”.
But on Thursday, Morrison said progress had been made on mending bilateral ties after a spokesman for Erdogan said the president’s words were “taken out of context”.
‘Responding to the terrorist’
Fahrettin Altun, director of communications for the Turkish presidency, said Erdogan was in fact responding to the “manifesto” posted online by the man arrested in the mosque attacks.
Altun also said Erdogan had made his remarks in a historical context relating to attacks past and present against Turkey, a move partly inspired, he said, by the fact the president was speaking near commemorative sites near the Gallipoli battlefields.
— Fahrettin Altun (@fahrettinaltun) March 20, 2019
“President Erdogan’s words were unfortunately taken out of context,” Altun said on Twitter.
“He was responding to the so-called ‘manifesto’ of the terrorist who killed 50 innocent Muslims in Christchurch, New Zealand. Turks have always been the most welcoming & gracious hosts to their Anzac [Australia and New Zealand] visitors.
“The terrorist’s manifesto not only targeted Erdogan himself but also the Turkish people and the Turkish state.
“As he was giving the speech at the Canakkale [Gallipoli] commemoration, he framed his remarks in a historical context of attacks against Turkey, past and present.”
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Morrison on Thursday welcomed what he called a “moderation” of Erdogan’s views, which followed a series of high-level bilateral diplomatic communications on the matter.
“Overnight, progress has been made on this issue and overnight we’ve already seen a moderation of the president’s views,” Morrison told reporters in Melbourne.
“It’s my intention to break any cycle of recklessness, to work through these issues practically, to register in the strongest and clearest of terms the offence that was taken – I believe rightly – by those comments yesterday, but now to work constructively,” he added.
“Australia and Turkey, the peoples of both countries, have a tremendous relationship, built up over generations.”
Thursday’s developments came as New Zealand Foreign Minister and Deputy Prime Minister Winston Peters was en route to Turkey to meet with Erdogan and seek clarification over his comments.
Erdogan has also sparked outrage abroad by showing video excerpts at his campaign rallies of the footage broadcast by the Christchurch gunman, to denounce what he has called rising hatred and prejudice against Islam. Three Turkish citizens were among the dozens wounded in the attack.
The Turkish leader – who is in full campaign mode ahead of local elections – wrote a column in the Washington Post on Tuesday accusing Western countries of meeting Islamophobia with “silence”.
Erdogan also praised New Zealand Prime Minister’s Jacinda Ardern’s “courage, leadership and sincerity” in handling the crisis.
The gunman’s manifesto mentions Turkey and the minarets of Istanbul’s famed Hagia Sophia, now a museum, that was once a church before becoming a mosque during the Ottoman Empire.