Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan on Friday abruptly cut short a visit to the United States to attend boxing legend Muhammad Ali’s funeral and returned home.
Erdogan, who has expressed his admiration for Ali as a boxer and a champion of Muslim rights, did not make a statement on his arrival in Istanbul and his office did not provide an explanation as to why he had returned early.
Turkish media reports however, said the Turkish leader was vexed after funeral organisers rejected his request to lay a piece from the cloth covering the Kaaba — located in Islam’s most sacred mosque in Mecca, Saudi Arabia — on Ali’s coffin during a funeral ceremony held Thursday.
They reportedly also denied a request for Turkey’s top cleric — who had travelled to Louisville, Kentucky, with Erdogan to attend the funeral — to read from the Quran, according to the private Dogan news agency.
Erdogan and Jordan’s King Abdullah were scheduled to speak at the funeral but lost their spots when two other speakers were added later.
Erdogan attended the traditional Muslim prayer ceremony for Ali on Thursday but missed Friday’s funeral. Ali died last Friday at 74 after a long battle with Parkinson’s disease.
Before departing for Turkey, the president attended a Ramadan fast-breaking dinner given in his honour by a community of US-based Meskhetian Turks — an ethnic group which was expelled from their homeland by Stalin in 1944 — and paid tribute to Ali.
“Muhammad Ali drew our admiration because despite all obstacles he continued to walk on the path he knew to be right, after converting to Islam at age 22, in a country like the United States,” Turkey’s state-run Anadolu Agency quoted Erdogan as saying during dinner.
“While he went from victory to victory in the boxing rings, Muhammad Ali also became the voice of the Muslims in all corners of the world, as well as of the oppressed and aggrieved,” he said. “Every punch that he threw was a breath of relief for the oppressed and the aggrieved, because they knew that Muhammad Ali was leading this struggle for them.”