Veteran journalist Dr Bora Bayraktar greeted his audiences to the Hagia Sophia by saying, "Welcome to the heart of the world." His views have been recorded for his YouTube channel to inform audiences about Turkey's recent decision on the iconic 6th century sanctuary.
"Why I said 'the heart of the world' is because of Hagia Sophia… When it was a church during the Eastern Roman Empire, it was the source of legitimacy. Under the Ottoman Empire, it was also the official insignia of Muslim heritage."
No one can deny that Constantinople (now Istanbul) was a centre for Christianity and Greek culture. It was there that the Hagia Sophia was built and used as a church for 916 years. It is now regarded as one of the Eight Wonders of the World. Following the Ottoman conquest of Istanbul in 1453, it was bought and converted into a mosque by Sultan Mehmet II. The name was, however, retained. It remained in use as a mosque until 1934 when the Turkish cabinet decreed that it should be converted into a museum.
Last week, when a Turkish court annulled the 1934 decree, several countries criticised the decision. President Recep Tayyip Erdogan dismissed domestic and foreign criticism, though, saying that it was of no significance in a court of law. "Accusations against our country about Hagia Sophia target our sovereign rights directly," he added in response to concern over the proposal from the West, particularly Greece, France and the United States.
Evidently, the criticism has more to do with politics than prayer. There is no ground for criticising the Turkish government on the changing of the status of the Hagia Sophia from a museum into a mosque, which will still remain open for tourists to visit. Other major mosques in Istanbul welcome thousands of visitors every day, and there are also the examples of France's iconic Notre Dame Cathedral and Sacré-Cœur Basilica, both world famous churches which are open to tourists and worshippers alike. Similarly, the Hagia Sophia has been reopened for prayer, but that will not stop it from being a gem of world heritage. This much has been affirmed by Turkish officials.
Significantly, the US has reacted to this development as if the Hagia Sophia is occupied, urging the government in Ankara to maintain its status as a museum. This is indeed odd, given that no other country apart from the US has openly supported Israel's annexation plan for the occupied Palestinian territories in the West Bank. Instead of complying with UN resolutions to withdraw, Israel is expanding its illegal occupation. In December 2017, the US acting in clear defiance of the world community, recognised Israel's claim to illegally-annexed Jerusalem as its capital, and has since afforded the same recognition to the Zionist state's annexation of the occupied Syrian Golan Heights.
The US is looking in the wrong place for the source of regional unrest. For many decades it has supported Israel's disenfranchisement of the Palestinian people whose lands, homes and other possessions can be taken from them at any moment. All Israeli settlements are built on stolen Palestinian land and all are illegal; the settlers enjoy the full privileges of Israeli citizenship. They can vote in elections, access health insurance and social security, appear before Israeli civil courts if need be, and are connected to the Israeli electricity and communications grid. They are protected at every step by the Israeli army and police. The Palestinians are under military occupation.
US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said that Turkey must respect faith traditions and diverse regional history and ensure that Hagia Sophia remains accessible to all. If only he would address the question of Israel's occupation in the same way; that, after all, is clearly in breach of international law every single day of the year, not least in respect of Al-Aqsa Mosque in occupied Jerusalem. Turkey's decision to open the Hagia Sophia for worship is neither illegal nor the act of an occupying power. Israel's restrictions imposed on Al-Aqsa Mosque, and denial of the rights of Muslim worshippers there, demonstrate an occupying power showing utter contempt for international laws and conventions. It is clear that it is Israel's annexation plan which destroys all hopes for a lasting peace in the Middle East, and indeed the rest of the world, and not Turkey's return of Hagia Sophia to its legitimate status as a mosque.
President Donald Trump's recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel was clearly illegal. His decision to move the US Embassy to the occupied holy city was also illegal. Neither of these two acts can be equated with President Erdogan's signature on a document relating to a building within Turkey's sovereign territory.
Jerusalem is a city that is sacred to the three great monotheistic faiths: Judaism, Christianity and Islam, and each has sites of great religious significance there. Trump's support for Israel's annexation may resonate with his right-wing Evangelical Christian base but his support for Israel's illegal military occupation is inexcusable, even if the US President and his aides argue that Erdogan is seeking to benefit politically from the court's decision.
There is clearly an element of hypocrisy on the part of those who criticise Turkey, as they are generally those who have treated Muslim heritage sites with disdain. In 2017, for example, Córdoba City Council published a magazine in which Demetrio Fernández González, the Bishop of Córdoba, said of the architecture of the 8th century Grand Mosque in the city: "It is not Muslim, it's Byzantine. It's Christian Byzantine. The Moors [sic] only contributed the money." This extraordinary outburst was rejected immediately by the academic community, as well as local and national figures in Spain.
Among the latter was Professor José Miguel Puerta Vílchez from the University of Granada, who defended the Umayyad Islamic architectural origins of the building in an article published in El País on 3 February, 2017. The Professor of Art History rejected what he considered to be attempts by the authorities in Córdoba to deny the building's Muslim heritage.
Moreover, only last month the Muslim Association of Greece reported that the government in Athens had ordered one of the oldest Muslim prayer halls in the Greater Athens area to be closed. The Education and Religious Affairs Ministry reportedly said that the facility lacks a licence to operate and gave it a 15-day notice to clear the premises in Piraeus, a port city just 12 kilometres from the centre of the capital.
Throughout the Balkans, as in Greece, minority Turkish Muslim communities have been complaining for years about their inability to practice their religion freely. They have been denied even the right to choose their own religious clerics and administrators of religious endowments (Awqaf), instead of those appointed by local governments.
Similarly, last year the Israeli municipality in Safed turned the historic Al-Ahmar Mosque into a bar and events hall. This mosque was occupied by Jewish terror gangs in 1948 during the Nakba. They turned it into a Jewish school, then into a political campaign centre and then into a clothes warehouse before finally turning it into a nightclub.
Sadly, while all these crimes were being committed the world remained deaf, blind and silent. Politicians and the international media continue to ignore the criminal violations perpetrated with impunity by Israel and others against Muslims. Anyone who criticises the Zionist state is accused of "anti-Semitism". Our region will only enjoy peace and stability when this hypocrisy comes to an end. It is the Zionist state of Israel which undermines regional peace, not Turkey's move to change a museum into a mosque.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.