Turkey’s Erdogan sparks controversy with Hagia Sophia conversion

Special to WorldTribune.com

By John J. Metzler

Its very name Hagia Sophia evokes the ancient mysteries of Byzantium. Its setting along the Golden Horn on the majestic Bosphorus joining Europe and Asia in itself serves as a beacon for uniting world religions. Yet this magnificent church which has weathered the march of time and the shift of empires has now fallen victim to a very contemporary crisis; a crass political/religious move by Turkey’s authoritarian leader Recep Tayyip Erdogan to return the historic structure into a mosque.

Constructed in 537 AD by the Byzantine Emperor Justinian on the site of a church built by the Roman Emperor Constantine, Hagia Sophia became a revered symbol of Christianity in Constantinople. In 1453, when the Ottomans captured the city, the Sultan ordered the church’s transformation into a mosque.  But nearly five centuries later, Hagia Sophia’s status changed yet again in 1934 when Kemal Atatürk, the founder of modern secular Turkey, converted the shrine into a museum to be shared by all faiths.

Hagia Sophia, Holy Wisdom in Greek, remains the grande dame of Eastern Christendom in Istanbul. / Creative Commons / CC-BY SA 3.0

Hagia Sophia, Holy Wisdom in Greek, remains the grande dame of Eastern Christendom in Istanbul, the pulsating metropolis on the crossroads of Europe and Asia-minor. The iconic 1,500-year-old structure with its massive domes, vaulted ceilings, golden mosaics, and surrounded by four minarets added by the Moslem conquerers five centuries ago, awes onlookers.

Now the fates and Turkey’s new “Sultan” Erdogan deemed that the structure return to Islam. Erdogan claims that Turkey had exercised its sovereign right; “After 86 years, Hagia Sophia will serve as a mosque again.” Indeed, the secular opposition party that controls Istanbul has described Erdogan’s true intent as political rather than religious.

World renown Turkish novelist Orhan Pamuk told the BBC, “Kemal Atatürk changed Hagia Sophia from a mosque to a museum, honoring all previous Greek Orthodox and Roman Catholic history, making it as a sign of Turkish modern secularism.”

Atatürk’s political vision rested on dual pillars: Turkish nationalism and secularism.

Of course, President Erdogan is playing a populist game by appealing to the overwhelming Muslim Turkish majority. Serious economic setbacks from the Coronavirus, not to mention growing political opposition to his authoritarian style and policies, make playing a religious card a clever tactic especially among the rural Anatolian populace.

But beyond pushback from many secular Turks there’s a growing global consensus that Erdogan has upset a delicate balance of politics and faith in Turkey.

A sermon by Ali Erbas, the chief of the powerful Presidency of Religious Affairs the Diyanet, implicitly cursed the republic’s founder Kemal Atatürk for having turned the former mosque into a Museum.  Opposition parties accused Erbas of targeting the revered Atatürk.

Pope Francis in Rome has shown his anguish saying his “thoughts go to Istanbul” and “I think of Santa Sophia and I am very pained.”

Patriarch Bartholomew of the Eastern Orthodox Church warned that the conversion of the sacred site would fracture two worlds.  Notably the Russian Orthodox Church decried the move.

UNESCO deeply regrets the decision of the Turkish authorities, made without prior discussion, to change the status of Hagia Sophia which is inscribed on the World Heritage List. “Hagia Sophia is an architectural masterpiece and a unique testimony to interactions between Europe and Asia over the centuries. Its status as a museum reflects the universal nature of its heritage, and makes it a powerful symbol for dialogue,” said Director-General Audrey Azoulay.

Hagia Sophia is located in old Istanbul near the magnificent Blue Mosque.

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo advised, “The United States views a change in the status of the Hagia Sophia as diminishing the legacy of this remarkable building and its unsurpassed ability, so rare in the modern world, to serve humanity as a much-needed bridge between those of differing faith traditions and cultures.”

The Turkish Daily News stated that curiously on the day Hagia Sophia reopened as a religious site, was the anniversary of the the 1923 Lausanne Treaty which prepared “the foundation of the Republic of Turkey.” The new state adopted the Latin alphabet, granted women’s rights and implemented a secular order. “That’s why the treaty has long been described as the title deed of the Republic of Turkey and a clear victory for Atatürk,” opines Serkan Demitris.

I fondly recall gazing over the rooftops of Istanbul from the Galata Tower in the Beyoglu district. One could not help but notice many church steeples and towers in the old city; buildings which have since been repurposed given the dwindling Christian community. Sadly, President Erdogan’s move has tarnished Turkey’s image and questioned its secularism.

John J. Metzler is a United Nations correspondent covering diplomatic and defense issues. He is the author of Divided Dynamism the Diplomacy of Separated Nations: Germany, Korea, China (2014). [See pre-2011 Archives]