Reconversion of Hagia Sophia into a mosque may be a vote-winner for Erdogan

Reconversion of Hagia Sophia into a mosque may be a vote-winner for Erdogan

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A debate is again open in Turkey on the question of reconverting the Hagia Sophia from a museum into a mosque. 

Built nearly 1,500 years ago on the orders of Byzantine Emperor Justinian, this cathedral is one of the oldest standing shrines in the world, but it has a tumultuous history. 

Fourth Crusader armies in 1204 captured Istanbul (then named Constantinople) and ruthlessly sacked, looted, vandalized and destroyed it. The whole city was plundered. Relics, golden objects, challises, plates and furniture were scattered all around Europe. Today, some churches in Germany and Italy are full of Byzantine belongings stolen from the Hagia Sophia and elsewhere in the city.

Grand Duke Loukas Notaras, the last commander-in-chief of the Byzantine navy, was so fed up with the unwelcome attitude of the remaining Catholics in Istanbul (it had been recaptured by the Byzantines in 1261) that, in 1451, he is quoted as saying: “I would rather see a Turkish turban in the midst of the city than the Latin miter.”

Two years later, Notaras’ wish materialized. The Ottoman state seized Istanbul in 1453 and put an end to the Byzantine Empire. The Ottomans converted the Hagia Sophia into a mosque and it served as such for 480 years. 

In 1934, the founder of republican Turkey, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, thought that, as the Blue Mosque (aka the Sultan Ahmed Mosque) was only a few hundred meters away from the Hagia Sophia, there was no shortage of praying grounds for the Muslim worshippers in that neighborhood. And, as the Hagia Sophia was of such cultural and historical importance, he decided to convert it into a museum.

There is a strong lobby in certain European countries — and especially in Greece — against the reconversion

Yasar Yakis

However, a religious order in Turkey recently applied to Turkey’s top administrative court, claiming that Ataturk’s signature on the decree that ordered the conversion of the Hagia Sophia was a fake. The Council of State court met last week to debate the case. According to reports, the public prosecutor said during the hearing that there was no evidence the signature was a fake, but that the government could use its sovereign right to convert the museum into a mosque. 

It would be a contradiction for the Turkish government to change the status of a monument on the UNESCO World Heritage List in its territory, while on the other hand it is making strenuous efforts to get other monuments on to this list. 

In May, a Qur’an recitation session was organized in the Hagia Sophia to celebrate the 567th anniversary of the conquest of Istanbul. The sura “Al-Fath” was recited during this session. The ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) commissioned a poll to find out the response of the public to holding such a session. It was reported that almost 75 percent of those polled supported the event. The AKP thus ascertained that there was strong support for reconverting the building to a mosque.

Unrelated to the conquest of Istanbul, this particular chapter of the Qur’an has a symbolic significance because it is about the Treaty of Hudaybiyyah, which was signed in the sixth year of Hijri (A.D. 628) between Prophet Muhammad and the Pagan notables of Makkah. According to the provisions of this treaty, the Prophet desisted from his intention to perform Umrah that year and postponed it to the following year. Thanks to this pacifying tactic, Prophet Muhammad conquered Makkah the following year without any fighting.

In March last year, the European Parliament adopted a resolution on Turkey. It was an omnibus resolution, in which the members of parliament usually compete to insert paragraphs to stain Turkey’s image. This was no different, and one adopted clause opposed the reconversion of the Hagia Sophia. 

There is a strong lobby in certain European countries — and especially in Greece — against the reconversion. However, hundreds of mosques that were built during the 460 years of Ottoman rule in the territories that make up Greece today have been converted into churches, military prisons, cinemas or storage units, or were abandoned and allowed to fall into ruin. Arab News reported in 2003 that Athens was the only EU capital city without an official mosque. Meanwhile, there are nine Greek Orthodox churches in active use in Istanbul. Turkey wishes that the members of the European Parliament would remember this when they vote on such resolutions. 

Four countries have so far made official statements opposing Turkey’s intention to convert the museum: The US, France, Greece and Russia. Turkey has slammed three of them but stayed quiet on Russia because Ankara is on opposite sides of conflicts with Moscow in both Syria and Libya, and it does not want to add a new area of confrontation. 

It is difficult to guess what President Recep Tayyip Erdogan will eventually do. As a pious believer, he may follow the Prophet Muhammad’s Hudaybiyyah example and convert the Hagia Sophia into a mosque by letting the opposing public opinion digest it slowly. He may also do so for the sake of meeting the expectations of his own conservative electorate. This would boost his votes.

  • Yasar Yakis is a former foreign minister of Turkey and founding member of the ruling AK Party. Twitter: @yakis_yasar
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