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Will European protests prevent the Hagia Sophia Museum becoming a mosque?

A drone photo shows an aerial view of Hagia Sophia, in Istanbul, Turkey on 6 June 2020 [Lokman Akkaya/Anadolu Agency]
A drone photo shows an aerial view of Hagia Sophia, in Istanbul, Turkey on 6 June 2020 [Lokman Akkaya/Anadolu Agency]

A key goal of Turkish Islamists, led by the ruling Justice and Development Party (AK Party), is the conversion of the Hagia Sophia Museum back into a mosque. It is not a holy site for Muslims per se, as the mosques in Makkah, Madinah and Al-Aqsa are; the 1,500-year-old Hagia Sophia is more of a political symbol. Nevertheless, it could be a hugely significant move if President Recep Tayyip Erdogan pushes it through.

Discussions on the status of the building in Istanbul near the famous Blue Mosque have been ongoing since the founder of modern Turkey, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, turned it into a museum in 1935. The Greeks who consider themselves the cultural heirs of the Byzantine Empire and Turkey’s secularists who portray themselves as the defenders of Ataturk’s secular republic are the main groups opposing any changes to the historical site, which was a Greek Orthodox Cathedral and then an Ottoman Mosque before Ataturk made his move.

President Erdogan’s AK Party faces immense challenges from a stagnant economy made worse by the Covid-19 pandemic, with exports to Europe and income from tourism both declining dramatically. Moreover, his former Finance Minister Ali Babacan and former Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu have formed their own political parties. The AK Party is panicking as they are likely to pick up votes from some of its own disgruntled supporters. Political analysts now contend that the Hagia Sophia issue is Erdogan’s last chance to keep his voter base intact under the strain of economic and political turmoil; it is a clever and timely diversion.

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Just two days before the local government elections in March last year, Erdogan said that the Hagia Sophia Museum was to be open for Muslims to conduct their prayers and for tourists to visit. He stepped back from this when his candidate for mayor of Istanbul, Binali Yildirim, lost the election by a substantial number of votes. The debate on the status of Hagia Sophia has heated up recently, though, after a tweet from Erdogan’s Communication Director, Fahrettin Altun, went viral: he shared a photo of Hagia Sophia alongside “We missed it! But be patient. We’ll make it happen together.”

The Greek Times then reported that Istanbul’s sixth-century Byzantine architectural masterpiece may soon be converted back into a mosque. The newspapers in Greece also reacted to a statement from Turkey’s Religious and Foundation Employees Union that the first Friday prayer after the pandemic will be performed in the Hagia Sophia.

Inside Turkey’s Hagia Sophia in Istanbul, 17 March 2013 [Rabe/Wikipedia]

Unlike officials of the Greek Orthodox Church, the Armenian Patriarch of Turkey, Sahak II, surprisingly supported the government’s plan to change the Hagia Sophia back into a mosque. The Patriarch tweeted on Saturday that the Hagia Sophia should be opened to worship and he suggested that a space should also be allocated for Christians: “Hagia Sophia was built through the labour of 10,000 workers at an astronomical cost. Countless repairs of 1,500 years, the endowment of the Sultan Mehmet II the Conqueror were all for Hagia Sophia to be preserved as a place of worship, not as a museum… We don’t have the luxury of a new cross and crescent dispute.”

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Turkey’s nationalist Good Party submitted a bill to Parliament last week to open the Hagia Sophia for Islamic worship, but the proposal was rejected by the government, with the Nationalist Movement Party and pro-Kurdish People’s Democracy Party abstaining. However, AK Party Deputy Chairman Mehmet Mus said that the Hagia Sophia issue is on hold for now, but necessary steps for worship will be taken in July.

When the Greek Foreign Ministry criticised the reading of passages from the Qur’an inside Hagia Sophia during the celebration of the 567th anniversary of the Ottoman conquest of Constantinople (Istanbul) on 29th May, Erdogan lambasted the officials. “Are you or we governing Turkey?” he asked. The Turkish President is now awaiting a decision from the Council of State regarding the conversion of the museum into a mosque after a local group made such an application a few months ago. The case will be settled by the 10th Chamber of the Council of State on 2 July.

Istanbul’s Mayor Ekrem Imamoglu from the opposition Republican People’s Party does not support the move. He believes that now is not the time to discuss Hagia Sophia’s status as tourism has fallen by 97 per cent due to the pandemic and hundreds of thousands of people have lost their jobs.

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Polls suggest that Erdogan’s party has lost significant support. Although he has managed to restrict the army’s control of Turkish politics and abolished the ban on public servants and students wearing hijab, he now faces protests from European states about the plans for Hagia Sophia. As he also struggles with the pandemic and has, coincidentally, had some military success in Libya in recent weeks, Erdogan might think that it is a good time to convert the Hagia Sophia back into a mosque and then call for a snap general election.

Byzantine Emperor Justinian I constructed Hagia Sophia in in 537 to make Constantinople holy for Christians. The Cathedral served them for 916 years until the Ottoman conquest. Erdogan’s possible re-conversion seeks to portray him as a supreme leader for religious and nationalist segments of the population and, by doing so, reinstate some of his lost power.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.

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