Recep Tayyip Erdogan continues to make life more difficult for Christians and Muslims alike, both inside his country and in the world outside.
On Friday, a top administrative court in Turkey paved the way for the most visited monument standing in the heart of Istanbul, the Hagia Sophia, to be converted, despite international warnings, back into a mosque after it had annulled a 1934 government decree turning the building — originally a sixth century Byzantine cathedral — into a museum.
As soon as the decision was announced, crowds holding flags of Turkey gathered outside the Hagia Sophia chanting “Allahu Akbar” (God is Great) while President Erdogan went on social media to celebrate.
Erdogan tweeted a copy of the decree, which shows transfer of authority over the building from the Ministry of Culture to the Ministry of Religious Affaris, the “Diyanet”, with a “congratulations” note added from the president.
Many praised the decision, and Erdogan. “I will pray for you until I die. You are the new and invincible leader of the Islamic world and Turkey, I offer you my gratitude,” was one tweet in reply to the president’s tweet.
“In the dome that will echo again, believers will meet again. Thank goodness to my Lord who shows us these days,” stated another response.
On the other hand, as a response to the president’s post, a Greek woman, Helen, tweeted a photo from the interior of the building, a mosaic of Virgin Mary holding child Jesus and a note: “Theotokos is watching you Tayyip.” Theotokos is Mother of God or Mother of Jesus, the term is used in the Eastern Orthodox Church to describe Virgin Mary.
The 27 EU foreign ministers met Monday, the first face-to-face meeting in months, and “condemned the Turkish decision to convert such an emblematic monument as the Hagia Sophia,” EU Foreign Policy Chief Josep Borrell said, calling on Turkish authorities to “urgently consider and reverse this decision”.
Greek government spokesman Stelios Petsas said Greece will impose sanctions on Turkey. “Anyone who violates international law must understand that for this delinquent behaviour there are sanctions that hurt,” he said.
Greek genocide scholar Vassilios Meichanetsidis is not so optimistic. “I am afraid it is hard to have effective sanctions against Turkey. The West appears rather indifferent or mild towards the matter,” he told Al-Ahram Weekly, explaining that there was indifference from the West in the past too, when the Ittihadists and the Kemalists slaughtered nearly three million Ottoman Christians (Armenians, Assyrians and Greeks) and burnt to the ground the city of Smyrna and other Christian-inhabited cities across Anatolia.
“The EU is in obvious moral and political decline. For example, EU member Germany sells weapons to Turkey to carry out its wars in northern Iraq, Syria and Libya. There is no consideration for the loss of human lives, but only economic interests,” said Meichanetsidis, calling on neutral countries and those suffering from Turkey’s violations to boycott Erdogan regime.
UNESCO expressed its deep regret over the conversion “without prior discussion”, and called for the universal value of the 1,500-year-old World Heritage Site to be preserved.
“Any modification requires prior notification by the State concerned to UNESCO and then, if necessary, examination by the World Heritage Committee,” read the UN affiliated organisation’s statement, adding that it will review the status of the monument.
The building is on the list of World Heritage Sites since 1985.
Later, after the statement was issued, Turkey’s Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said that his country will inform the organisation about steps being taken regarding the Hagia Sophia.
Although the conversion of the UNESCO site was long a demand of Turkey’s Islamists, some in the Turkish opposition are siding with Erdogan’s decision.
Former prime minister and leader of the newly formed opposition Future Party, Ahmet Davutoglu, a few weeks ago called the government to “stop treating the country’s sacred symbols as a get-out-of-jail-free card whenever you are stuck, it is not a tool in your hands or a bargaining chip.” After the court’s decision, Davutoglu tweeted: “The responsible position expressed by the government and the opposition is appreciated. Best wishes for the symbol of conquest and honesty of the conqueror of Hagia Sophia which is an accumulation of the civilisation of all Istanbul.”
“For the Muslim majority of the country, the Hagia Sophia is a very important symbol, so it is difficult for a major political power or personality to openly oppose this kind of decision. Both Erdogan and Davutoglu are fighting for the same politically oriented votes, so they have quite similar agendas,” assistant professor at Yerevan State University Varujan Keghamian, who often writes about Turkey related issues, told the Weekly, adding that only the pro-Kurdish HDP (The People’s Democratic Party) opposed the decision, “as it has not much to lose”.
HDP Co-Deputy Director and Diyarbekir MP Garo Paylan raised the subject of the conversion in parliament, reminding the speaker of Erdogan’s stance on the matter a year ago.
Erdogan only a year ago during an interview on a TV programme said, “Reopening Hagia Sophia as a mosque has a trade-off. The bill for such a decision will be far too heavy. We have thousands of mosques here. As a political leader, I haven’t gone so far off course as to get into that game.”
So why is he playing that game now?
“While the mayor of Istanbul, Erdogan spoke about the importance of the cathedral for Muslims and his desire to see it as a mosque. Starting from the 2010s, when authoritarian tendencies increased in Turkey and Islamic nationalism became the dominant ideology, the ruling elite periodically stated that work is underway to turn the cathedral into a mosque. However, concrete steps have been taken only now, which is not so much related to the desire to see a mosque instead of a museum, as to the domestic political situation,” Keghamian told the Weekly.
He stressed that social and economic hardship that has further downgraded Erdogan’s ratings is forcing authorities to take populist steps so as to mobilise the Islamic electorate. “However, it is important to note that despite the symbolic importance, and some mobilisation of its electorate, this is unlikely to help in the long term,” Keghamian said.
Palestine-born historian Basheer Nafie thinks that the controversy over the Hagia Sophia will neither benefit nor change anything. The conversion of the Hagia Sophia to a museum in 1934 was not legal in the first place, and throughout the decades that decision was the source of pain in the Turkish conscience, he tweeted.
Turkey’s president announced first prayers is scheduled to take place in the Hagia Sophia 24 July.
“Symbolism is of crucial importance in Turkish politics. 24 July is long commemorated in Turkey as the Day of Lausanne. The 1923 Treaty of Lausanne recognised the government of Kemal Ataturk and in fact became the founding document of the Republic of Turkey,” Keghamian explained, adding that the Kemalist elite, against which the Islamist elite led by Erdogan is struggling in recent decades, repeatedly stated that the Lausanne Treaty was not a victory, but a set of defeats for Turkey.
“In a symbolic struggle against the Kemalist legacy, 24 July will have a new meaning, which symbolises the Islamic victory against secular values. It can be assumed that this was the reason for setting such a date for the opening of the cathedral to Islamist Turks,” Keghamian told the Weekly.
According to the Diyanet, the religious affairs directorate, two imams and four muazzins (those who call for prayer) will be appointed by the state institution regulating the role of Islam in the country. “Necessary steps” will be taken in dealing with the icons on the walls. “They will be covered by curtains or lasers during prayer times,” an AKP spokesman said.
“We will accept all attitudes and statements regarding this matter, other than voicing views in violation of our independence. Just as we as Turkey do not interfere in decisions on places of worship in other countries, we expect the same understanding about us protecting our historical and legal rights. To what purpose Hagia Sophia will be utilised is a matter of Turkey’s sovereign rights,” Erdogan said in his address to the nation after he signed the decree.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 16 July, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly