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Turkish leaders want to convert the Hagia Sophia back into a mosque

The iconic dome of the Hagia Sophia (top) in Istanbul as seen from across the Bosphorus. RNS photo by Jabeen Bhatti
The iconic dome of the Hagia Sophia (top) in Istanbul as seen from across the Bosphorus. RNS photo by Jabeen Bhatti

The iconic dome of the Hagia Sophia (top) in Istanbul as seen from across the Bosphorus. RNS photo by Jabeen Bhatti

ISTANBUL (RNS) In this ancient city, there are few sights more iconic than the dome of the Hagia Sophia, towering over the old city for more than 1,400 years.

But recent conversions of former Byzantine-era churches from museums into mosques, encouraged by religious and political leaders, have caused alarm among religious minorities and Turkey’s Christian neighbors.

“We currently stand next to the Hagia Sophia Mosque,” Turkey’s deputy prime minister, Bulent Arinc, remarked last month during a dedication of a museum of Caucasus carpets and rugs in the Hagia Sophia complex. “We are looking at a sad Hagia Sophia but hopefully we will see it smiling again soon.”

Arinc, also a senior Cabinet minister from the ruling Islamic-rooted Justice and Development Party, mentioned two recent conversions of smaller Byzantine-era museums — in Trabzon in the northeast and Iznik near Istanbul — that have become working mosques.

The speech was just the latest call for the building to be converted into a mosque after a sermon in October by the imam of the neighboring Sultan Ahmet mosque. He told worshippers a conversion must take place, and his comments were soon followed by a campaign launched by the far-right National Turkish Student Association.

Reaction from the Greek Foreign Ministry to the Arinc speech was swift, calling the speech “an insult to the religious sensibilities of millions of Christians and actions that are anachronistic and incomprehensible from a state that declares it wants to participate as a full member in the European Union.”

“If it is to reopen as a house of worship, then it should open as a Christian church,” the Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew — the Archbishop of Constantinople — told Turkish newspaper Milliyet in February, saying that the Hagia Sophia had served as a Christian church for hundreds of years before Constantinople fell to the Ottoman Turks in 1453.

“It was built as a church and not a mosque,” he added.

The Hagia Sophia has been standing since 360, when the first church was constructed soon after the Roman Emperor Constantine converted to Christianity. Two more churches were built on the same site in 415 and in 532.

The Ottoman conquerors refurbished the building into a mosque in 1453. It became a museum after a decree by the founder of Turkey’s secular republic, Kemal Mustafa Ataturk, in 1935.

Some critics say the spate of conversions of Byzantine-era Christian houses of worship from museums to mosques reflects the government’s payback against Turkey’s former secular military elite, which has historically jailed leaders of religious parties and staged coups against elected governments.

“It is mostly a challenge to the secular rulers of Turkish republic,” said Engin Akyurek, a professor of Byzantine art at Istanbul University.

The government “re-converts church-mosques which were used as museums during the republican era so it is related to the domestic politics,” he said.

Still, despite concerns, the conversions continue.

In recent weeks it was announced that the Monastery of Stoudios — the largest Byzantine-era monastery in Istanbul — would be converted into a mosque next year. Part of the former monastery complex became a mosque in the 15th century but fell into disrepair, and after being gutted by two fires, it was abandoned in 1920.

Historians say this will destroy one of Istanbul’s earliest Byzantine monuments.

“To use this building for some function, a mosque or anything else, would mean to reconstruct almost 80 percent of the building,” said Akyurek. “So, it will not be a fifth-century building anymore. It will be a catastrophe for that building.”

With provincial elections slated for March — and expected to be a crucial test of the government’s decade-long rule — some see the museum-to-mosque conversions as a way for the Justice and Development Party to shore up its religiously conservative base, especially in the face of large protests earlier this year challenging its conservative policies, such as a tightening of the sale of alcohol.

Still, others are wary that the party’s political strategy to court religious voters will do irreparable damage to the country’s cultural and religious monuments and antagonize other religions.

“Supporting the reopening of Hagia Sophia has become the litmus test of the true believer,” said Professor Robert Ousterhout, director of the Center for Ancient Studies at the University of Pennsylvania. “Protests by the academic community have fallen on deaf ears.” 





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Jacob Resneck


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  • It really is time to boot Turkey out of NATO. It is nothing more than another ignorant, Muslim theocracy with mere trappings of democracy. The European Union has been wise to block the membership of this pariah state.

  • Although I appreciate the attention of RNS to the plight of Hagia Sophia, Mr. Resneck’s article neglects to mention that this venerable “Christian church” was, in fact, an Orthodox Christian church from its inception in the 6th century AD. It may seem a minor point to some, but Orthodox Christians are often sensitive about our legacy of religious oppression under the Ottoman Turks. Exhibit A today is the same Church of the Holy Wisdom (“Hagia Sophia”), stolen from the Byzantine Orthodox Christians, transformed into a mosque, and then transformed yet again into a museum. The edifice belongs, by natural right, to the direct descendants of those who constructed it in the first place–namely the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople, first among equals of the Orthodox Churches in the world.

  • First of all be carefull while using roman and Greek. It was not roman, it was and is Greek. Byzantium era with Konstantinos is the last thing we have from those times before the Ottoman Empire screwed up everything. It will be a complete blasphemy to turn our monument to a mosque. Unbelievable. It is not only matter of religion, but also matter of respect , something that Turkish people keep on lacking for centuries now but karma is a nasty power !

  • Yea because they didnt steal the land and kill millions. Are you joking 4.5 million died at the hands of ottoman. And they continue the abuse and neglecting it ever happen matt. How do the jews get all this money for their genocide but greeks and armenians get nothing. Moron

  • You need to re-check your history. The current Gagua Sophia is the third church to go by that name on that site. The first such church was contracted in the early portion of the firth century by Emperor Constantine. Following the battle of the Melvin Bridge, he sought to create new capitol for the east, and choose the then-small fishing village of Byzantium (hence the Byzantine Empire). He renamed the city Constantinople (literally “city of Constantine”)

    The first of those churches was small, and destroyed by a earthquake. the second was decoyed early on in the Reign of Emperor Justinian during a revolt. This church has seen some damage over the reaches, but has been repaired. It was the tallest church for over a thousand years, until saint Peter’s in Rome was built.

    It is Roman, as it was apart of the Roman Empire before from when it was still a Republic until the day the city fell to the Ottoman Turks on April 29, 1453. So yes, it is Roman & Greek.

  • The architecture in the picture is not Hagia Sophia. There are three Ottoman mosques in the picture. The one in front is Yeni Mosque built in 1600s, originally named the Valide Sultan Mosque, as seen from across the Golden Horne from the side of Galata Bridge. The other behind that is Nuriosmaniye Mosque which is one of the finest examples of mosques in Ottoman Baroque style and built around 1700s. And another one which can be seen on the left behind the Nuriosmaniye Mosque is the Gazi Atik Ali Pasha Mosque built in 1400s during the reign of Sultan Bayezid II who is the successor of Mehmed the Conqueror. They are all just 20-30 minutes walking distance away from the Hagia Sophia, and located in Istanbul’s historical peninsula which is, with all its historical, cultural and religious assets, a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1986.