HE GREAT CATHEDRAL of Hagia Sophia in the
Turkish capital of Istanbul was once the center of Eastern Orthodoxy
before being transformed into a mosque upon the conquest of Istanbul by
the Ottoman Empire in 1453; in 1934, Hagia Sophia
became a museum. On July 24, 2020, the cathedral will officially become
a mosque again at the behest of Turkish President Recep Erdoğan.
To understand the motivation behind this
development, Aid to the Church in Need (ACN) spoke to Etienne Copeaux, a
historian of modern Turkey. He is a former fellow of the French
Institute of Anatolian Studies (Institut français d'études
anatoliennes) in Istanbul and a former researcher at the CNRS (Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique).
By turning the ancient Christian Basilica of
Hagia Sophia into a mosque again, is President Erdoğan completing a
The process dates back to the conquest of
Constantinople in 1453 by the Ottoman Empire. To "act out" the capture
of the city and the fall of the Byzantine Empire, the victor,
Sultan Mehmet II, went to pray inside Hagia Sophia (in Turkish:
Ayasofya). As a result of this, Hagia Sophia became a mosque for almost
Ayasofya is also mentioned in Muhammad’s sayings (hadith). One
hadith lionizes whomever would take Constantinople. Legend
attributes a prophecy to Muhammad, which is important to understand the
importance of Hagia Sophia in the eyes of Muslim Turks. The dome of the
basilica collapsed during an earthquake in 558,
according to legend on the same night as Muhammad’s birth. Muhammad
then visited the Byzantine emperor in a dream and authorized him to
rebuild the basilica "because […] his believers would one day pray
Under the Ottoman Empire, the building was so holy
that Muslims would try to spend the ‘Night of destiny’ inside Hagia
Sophia to mark the sacred time in the month of Ramadan when Muslims
celebrate the Koran’s revelation to Muhammad.
Was Atatürk’s desacralization of the mosque in 1934 a breaking point for Turkish Muslims?
Since Hagia Sophia holds a special place in the
hearts and faith of Turkish Muslims, one can understand how scandalous
for them was the desacralization of the mosque and its conversion into a
museum by Atatürk, the founder of the secular
Turkish republic. This act has become the symbol of Turkish secularism.
But this must be seen in context: by this time, Turkey had eliminated
most non-Muslims by genocide, mass expulsions and pogroms. And the
process of ethnic cleansing did not stop but continued
in 1955, 1964, and 1974.
The desacralization provoked anger among Muslims,
which caused a reaction that came to light on the fifth centenary of the
conquest of Constantinople, in 1953. Right-wing parties, both
nationalist and religious, organized regular protests
in front of Hagia Sophia to demand its return to Muslim worship. Since
then, the demand has never stopped. Furthermore, during the victory in
the legislative elections of 1995 of the Islamist party, Refah, of which
Erdoğan was a member, voters were promised
the return of Aya Sofya to Islam. Now the job is done.
How much does the decision have to do with Erdoğan's personality?
It took some nerve; no one before him had dared to
go so far. It must be noted, however, that at present Erdoğan doesn’t
act from a position of strength and popular support. He is in trouble.
Islamists lost control of Istanbul; the economic
situation is disastrous. Erdoğan has been criticized in many quarters
and has failed to silence the opposition through repression. By this
act, he is obviously hoping to firmly rally the religious right around
him. Turkey’s openly anti-Western military operations,
despite the country’s membership in NATO, offer a favorable context.
Are the rising tensions caused by Erdoğan's decision primarily religious or political?
Ayasofya was a mosque for five centuries. It is
imbued with great sacredness, for both Christians and Muslims. If people
can continue to visit it respectfully, like any Turkish mosque, if the
Byzantine mosaics are respected, why be so offended?
In my opinion, the problem is political, not religious since the Koran
and many Islamic religious texts revere Jesus/Isa and Mary/Maryam.
Erdoğan acted for the sake of Turkish nationalism,
not the Muslim faith. Ayasofya is a nationalist question. The return
serves no purpose from a cultural point of view since Istanbulites have
far more mosques than they need, many of them
huge and magnificent.
What message is Erdoğan sending to Turkey’s religious minorities, specifically to Christians?
On a religious level, Turkey’s main "message" to
the world in the 20th century was the total destruction of a
multi-ethnic and multi-religious society by means of extreme violence.
All the massacres and expulsions were carried out on purely
religious grounds as part of a nationalist agenda.
Cyprus is the latest example. The northern part of
the island is a real laboratory for this process: when Turkey invaded in
1974, all Orthodox Christians were expelled by the Turkish military,
within an hour; not because they spoke Greek
but because they were Orthodox.
Such actions are Ottoman in orientation with people
institutionally divided into distinct religious communities. The
paradox is that, despite problems and massacres, the Ottoman Empire
It is the supposedly secular republic that made
Turkey 99 percent Muslim. In this respect, the Armenian genocide,
although perpetrated a few years before the founding of the republic,
was in fact its foundational moment.
For many people Hagia Sophia’s universal
cultural and religious vocation is being trampled upon. Should this move
be seen as an attack on religious freedom in Turkey?
"Religious freedom" in Turkey has been destroyed by
violence. Turkish nationalism is based on the notion that "the Turkish
nation is Muslim” and that one is not truly Turkish if one is not a
Muslim. Plus, I have often heard Jews and Orthodox
Christians, Turkish citizens, say: "I am not Turkish.”
This is a basic problem: for nationalist Turkey,
non-Muslims are foreigners. Nationalism is the real problem of this
country. It sometimes comes across as clearly black and white. For
example, on several occasions, commissions have replaced
place names of Greek, Armenian or other origin deemed "foreign.”
Armenians, Orthodox Christians, and Jews are foreigners in their own
country, even though they have lived there for far longer than the
In such a context, religious freedom formally
exists, on paper, but there is a lot of intimidation: graves and
cemeteries vandalized in Cyprus, and even Istanbul, not to mention
murders. Non-Muslims have been forced to keep a low profile,
an attitude encouraged by priests in their sermons.
Will there be major protests against the Hagia Sophia becoming a mosque again?
Why so much fuss over Hagia Sophia, since Turkish
nationalists have always done whatever they wanted to non-Muslims,
without any protest from the West? The terrible pogrom targeting
Orthodox Christians in Istanbul in September 1955 is a
case in point; this was followed by the expulsion of 100,000 ethnic
Greeks from the city, Turkish citizens forced to leave for Greece, a
country they didn’t know, descendants of the city’s original population
Any protests should have been activated not by
religion, but by a simple sense of humanity. Aren’t these facts—I'm not
even talking about the Armenian genocide—more important than the return
of Hagia Sophia to Islam?
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