Turkish religious body awards globe-spanning good deeds

The International Benevolence Awards organized by Turkey’s Presidency of Religious Affairs were presented to recipients on Tuesday, from famed singer Yusuf Islam to ordinary people recognized for their charitable work 


President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and other dignitaries were among those attending the ceremony.

Among the recipients of the awards was Yusuf Islam, a popular British singer formerly known as Cat Stevens, Siraj Wahhaj, a Muslim convert like Cat Stevens, former Turkish model and actress Gamze Özçelik, an 88-year-old craftsman working at mosques and an imam.

Crews who provided social aid to citizens during the restrictions in the first year of the COVID-19 pandemic and a group of women staging a sit-in for the return of their children abducted by the terrorist group PKK also received “vefa” (gratitude) awards at the ceremony.

Speaking at the ceremony, Erdoğan said he was pleased to meet with recipients of awards he described as “global envoys of benevolence.”


Erdoğan praised the “Mothers of Diyarbakır” as the women are known for saying “enough is enough” against “oppressors of my Kurdish brothers.” “A bunch of brave mothers tore apart the walls of fear and showed the true face of those abductors,” he said.

The president said Turkey would keep its doors open for people in need as a benevolent country. “They are coming from Ukraine today and we don’t know where the people would flee from and come here tomorrow. But this country will always be the shelter for the oppressed,” he said.

Singer-songwriter Yusuf Islam was awarded for his “Peace Train” project, titled after his 1971 song. The motto of the charity work of Yusuf Islam Foundation, Peace Train involves food aid to disadvantaged communities around the globe, access to water and construction of playgrounds for children in Africa, among other charitable works. Award organizers say Islam touched the hearts of both Muslims and non-Muslims with his “stance as a genuine faithful” and “actions.” Islam was also recognized for his contribution to Cambridge Mosque, Europe’s first eco-friendly mosque which is located in the eponymous English city. Islam who could not attend the ceremony personally sent a video message and thanked Erdoğan for Turkey’s acts of benevolence and leadership for Muslims across the world.

Siraj Wahhaj, born Jeffrey Kearse in New York, United States, received the award for conveying Islamic knowledge to people through a masjid (small mosque) he converted from a department store in Brooklyn. Wahhaj, a former member of the Nation of Islam, became a Sunni Muslim in the 1970s and founded Masjid at-Taqwa in the 1980s. Since then, he devoted himself to teaching Islam and fighting drug-related crimes in his neighborhood, which drew praise from the community and authorities. “Wahhaj, like his name, spreads the light of Islam,” a statement by the awards committee said, referring to the meaning of his Arabic name, “bright light.”

Gamze Özçelik was awarded for her charitable work around the globe. The former model and actress devoted her life to charity after volunteering for a humanitarian aid mission in Africa. Özçelik was recognized for her work, including drilling water wells in Cameroon for needy communities and delivering aid to orphans in war-torn Syria.

Ali Önder, an 88-year-old craftsman received the benevolence award for his years of crafting minbers (pulpits in a mosque where the imam stands to deliver sermons) for free for mosques across Turkey.

Ahmet Aydemir, an imam working at a mosque in the central province of Nevşehir was recognized for his work to endear children to attending his mosque by offering them to work with him in planting flowers at the mosque’s courtyard and decorating the place of worship with flowers. Aydemir also built a kitchen next to his mosque, delivering free meals to needy people on daily basis.

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