Hagia Sophia is Erdogan’s latest political battleground

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Transforming the Hagia Sophia into a museum was a key reform of the post-Ottoman Turkish authorities under the modern republic’s founder Mustafa Kemal Ataturk. (AFP)
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This aerial picture taken on April 25, 2020 shows the Hagia Sophia museum in Istanbul. (AFP)
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People visit Hagia Sophia museum on June 26, 2020 in Istanbul. (AFP)
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Updated 03 July 2020

Hagia Sophia is Erdogan’s latest political battleground

  • Hagia Sophia has been a museum since 1935
  • It was first constructed as a church in the Christian Byzantine Empire

ANKARA: Turkey’s highest administrative body on Thursday delayed its decision about the fate of the Hagia Sophia, the 1,500-year-old cathedral and UNESCO World Heritage site that could be converted into a mosque.

The Council of State will make its ruling within 15 days to decide whether the Byzantine-era monument and tourist hotspot should be converted from a museum into a place for Muslim worship.
The move has been criticized as a tactic to mobilize the religious and conservative voters of the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), although debates about the building’s status was a hot topic during AKP election rallies last year. Leaders and constituencies called for its conversion, despite opposition from secular parties and the international community.
Religious services have been banned in the Hagia Sophia since 1934. It was built in the sixth century by the Byzantine Emperor Justinian and has been visited by four popes.
Although Ankara has uneasy relationships with many Western governments, such an ideologically motivated decision about an asset that carries global political and religious meaning is likely to cause a deterioration in relations with key countries, especially the US and Greece.
Greek Culture Minister Lina Mendoni recently accused Turkey of refreshing “fanatical nationalist and religious sentiment,” while UNESCO called for wider approval and a pluralist consensus about the building’s fate before such a major decision was made.
But, when asked last month in a television interview for his opinion about Greek fury over the potential decision, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan insisted that this issue was strictly a matter for national sovereignty.
“They dare tell us not to transform the Hagia Sophia into a mosque,” he said. “Are you ruling Turkey, or are we?”
Some recent polls suggest decreased support for the AKP if a snap election were to be held. For some people, the insistence on the Hagia Sophia’s status may be linked to this shrinking support. Last year, Erdogan’s statement about converting the Hagia Sophia coincided with the run-up to local elections in March 2019.
A recent survey conducted by the independent firm MetroPOLL showed that 44 percent of Turks believed that the public debates around the Hagia Sophia intended to distract attention away from the economic situation, with pro-government news channels featuring experts claiming that the landmark was originally “a shopping mall.”
“It is not a sign of strength but of weakness when political agendas are mobilized in the context of World Heritage sites,” Ekavi Athanassopoulou, tenured assistant professor of international relations and an expert in Turkish-Greek relations from the University of Athens, told Arab News.
US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo recently warned that any change in the Hagia Sophia’s status would weaken its ability to serve humanity as a “much-needed bridge” between those of differing faith traditions and cultures.
Last week, US Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom Sam Brownback called on Ankara to maintain the building as it was.
Ziya Meral, a senior associate fellow at the Royal United Services Institute, said the move was mostly about galvanizing the AKP’s constituency, the majority of whom shared a decades-long ambition to restore its mosque status.
“The fact that Erdogan has not done so for the last two decades until now clearly raises the question of what he sees as a positive return in an issue that is set to attract widespread disappointment in Europe and the wider Christian populations at home and around the world,” he told Arab News.
Meral added that, for Turkey’s Christians, the issue was not that the Hagia Sophia would once again technically be a mosque, or that Muslim prayers would be held there.
“It has already been a mosque for centuries,” he said.
“The issue is a disappointment that nationalist triumphalism negates their heritage and a shared space that can be a sacred site of healing and unity rather than exclusion. A short-sighted emotive sense of victory for the AKP and Erdogan, but to what benefit amid strained relations with Europe and the US, and crumbling tourism and economy beyond affirmation by people who already vote for the AKP is difficult to establish.”

Angry Lebanese set up mock gallows amid calls for ‘revenge’ over blast

A Lebanese protester hangs a gallow in downtown Beirut on August 8, 2020, following a demonstration against a political leadership they blame for a monster explosion that killed more than 150 people and disfigured the capital Beirut. (AFP)
Updated 28 min 14 sec ago

Angry Lebanese set up mock gallows amid calls for ‘revenge’ over blast

  • MPs resign in protest as political fallout intensifies
  • As the dust settles from the disaster, the political fallout is intensifying

BEIRUT: Thousands of protesters set up a mock gallows in Beirut’s Martyr’s Square on Saturday and demanded “revenge” against politicians widely held responsible for the deadly explosion that devastated large swathes of the Lebanese capital.

At least 60 people are still missing after the massive blast in Beirut port, which killed more than 150 people, injured 5,000 others and left thousands homeless.

As the dust settles from the disaster, the political fallout is intensifying.

Police fired teargas and rubber bullets at thousands of people who gathered in the capital calling for the downfall of the country’s political elite, chanting:
“The people want the regime to fall.”

More than 100 protesters were injured in the clashes.

After demonstrators set up the mock gallows, effigies of political leaders, including former prime minister Saad Hariri and Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah, were displayed in some of the most explicit signs of public anger seen in years.

Police shot live ammunition in the air in an attempt to disperse the protesters, who responded by hurling rocks and charging security cordons.

One of the protesters, who gave her name only as Lina, said: “We came from Hasbaya in solidarity with Beirut. We came to stand together in grief and offer condolence for the loss of sons and daughters.

“We came to tell all the leaders to leave so that we can rebuild what you have destroyed, what happened is because of your negligence and greed,” she said.

Meanwhile, the three-member Kataeb party parliamentary bloc resigned on Saturday in protest at the blast, bringing to five the number of MPs to quit since the disaster.

In an emotional speech during a funeral service for a top party official who died in Tuesday’s blast, party leader Samy Gemayel announced his resignation and that of the two other MPs.

Independent MP Paula Yacoubian also resigned, while MP Michel Daher announced his withdrawal from the Strong Lebanon bloc led by the Free Patriotic Movement head Gebran Bassil.

As international aid flows into shell-shocked Beirut, Arab League Secretary General Ahmed Aboul Gheit, Turkish Vice President Fuad Oktay and European Council President Charles Michel arrived in the city to deliver relief aid and offer support.

After meeting President Michel Aoun and inspecting damage at the Foreign Ministry, near the port, Gheit said he would ask the Economic and Social Council to meet in the next two weeks to "examine the situation in Lebanon and how to help.”

He described the situation as “a disaster,” and said that “we must recognize that the Lebanese situation is difficult and complex.”

The Netherlands Foreign Ministry announced that the wife of Dutch envoy to Lebanon Jan Waltmans died of wounds sustained in the blast.

The Syrian Embassy in Lebanon said that 43 Syrians were among those killed in the explosion.

Military teams working at the blast site carried out tests for chemical, radioactive or biological agents on Saturday, Col. Roger Khoury told Arab News during a media tour.

Rescue teams are working round the clock looking for cell phone signals in the search for those missing after the blast.

However, the teams say they are being hampered by debris from the explosion, including concrete rubble from grain silos destroyed in the blast.

Military divers searching the port and nearby ocean for victims of the blast found a body hurled 500 meters by the force of the blast.

By early Saturday, a total of 61 relief planes had landed at Beirut airport carrying medical and relief supplies as well as food, Ministry of Defense Operations Room Commander Brig. Gen. Jean Nohra told Arab News.

He said that medical supplies are being distributed in coordination with the Ministry of Health.

Supplies are being stored at the headquarters of the Central Military Medical Authority in Beirut before being distributed, he said.