ISTANBUL 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.
But opponents see the project as an attempt to stamp a more religious identity on a square that includes a monument to Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, founder of the modern secular republic.
They have long accused Erdogan and Turkey's mildly Islamist ruling AK Party of trying to roll back Ataturk's legacy, a charge they deny.
Some residents of Taksim suggested the timing of the construction might be meant to rally Erdogan's supporters ahead of an April referendum on boosting his powers.
"The timing of this is deliberate and I don't find that very ethical," said one resident, Dincer, declining to give his family name for fear of publicly criticising Erdogan.
The cost of the project has not been disclosed. Demircan was quoted as saying by Haberturk newspaper that it was going to be funded by a private construction company.
(Writing by Humeyra Pamuk; Editing by Nick Tattersall and Gareth Jones)