RNS: It’s no rumor; Turks want Hagia Sophia as a mosque

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Talk about a trip into my guilt file.

I just did a quick search in my email files and it appears that I started receiving alerts about the following story in 2007 — all linked to appeals for Eastern Orthodox Christians to sign petitions opposing Turkish efforts to turn the iconic Hagia Sophia back into a mosque.

I’ve been receiving emails about this topic ever since. The journalistic problem, of course, was that Turkish leaders dismissed these reports, attributing them to the paranoid imaginations of the leaders of a tiny, although ancient, minority group in Turkey and their troublemaking international Christian allies.

Now, it appears that there is a bit of movement towards coverage. Let me praise the Religion News Service for weaving together some of the recent public, factual developments into an important wire-service story.

Will other media pay attention? For that matter, will the U.S. State Department pay attention?

Here’s the top of the report. Note the emphasis on the fact that other Byzantine-era churches have already been reconverted to mosques by the current Turkish government, which is usually referred to in media reports as one committed to using a more moderate Islamist approach, one that often clashes with Turkey’s recent history of alleged secularism.

ISTANBUL (RNS) – In this ancient city, there are few sights more iconic than the dome of the Hagia Sophia, towering over the old city for more than 1,400 years.

But recent conversions of former Byzantine-era churches from museums into mosques, encouraged by religious and political leaders, have caused alarm among religious minorities and Turkey’s Christian neighbors.

“We currently stand next to the Hagia Sophia Mosque,” Turkey’s deputy prime minister, Bulent Arinc, remarked last month during a dedication of a museum of Caucasus carpets and rugs in the Hagia Sophia complex. “We are looking at a sad Hagia Sophia but hopefully we will see it smiling again soon.”

Arinc, also a senior Cabinet minister from the ruling Islamic-rooted Justice and Development Party, mentioned two recent conversions of smaller Byzantine-era museums — in Trabzon in the northeast and Iznik near Istanbul — that have become working mosques.

The speech was just the latest call for the building to be converted into a mosque after a sermon in October by the imam of the neighboring Sultan Ahmet mosque. He told worshippers a conversion must take place, and his comments were soon followed by a campaign launched by the far-right National Turkish Student Association.

Now that is an impressive parade of facts, all of which center on statements and events in the public square. How can they be ignored?

For those seeking a bit of history on this building, which is one of the architectural wonders of the world, click here for a summary found at the rather neutral LiveScience website. Many readers will also want to click here for an Orthodox summary of its past. Suffice it to say that there has been a great church on this site since 360 and the sanctuary, in its current form, was constructed between 532 and 537 (which is amazing to even contemplate).

The key at the moment?

This great church was converted to a mosque when Constantinople fell to the Ottoman Turks in 1453. Under the largely secular regime of Turkish president Kemal Ataturk, the mosque was converted into a neutral museum in 1934. Over the decades, especially since the mid-1990s, researchers have attempted to recover — with some stunningly successful results — many of the priceless icons and mosaics that were covered with plaster during the church’s conversion into a mosque.

The problem, of course, is that many Muslims — some would say “most,” rather than “many” — believe that it is impossible under Sharia law for a worship space that has been used as a mosque to ever be used for another purpose. Obviously, the secular leaders of Turkey would have never considered allowing Haggia Sophia to be used, once again, as one of the world’s greatest cathedrals.

The RNS report notes that the primary tensions that are driving this story appear to be WITHIN ISLAM, as opposed to another round of tensions between Muslims and Turkey’s tiny oppressed Christian population.

Some critics say the spate of conversions of Byzantine-era Christian houses of worship from museums to mosques reflects the government’s payback against Turkey’s former secular military elite, which has historically jailed leaders of religious parties and staged coups against elected governments.

“It is mostly a challenge to the secular rulers of Turkish republic,” said Engin Akyurek, a professor of Byzantine art at Istanbul University. The government “re-converts church-mosques which were used as museums during the republican era so it is related to the domestic politics,” he said.

Why do I want to praise this story, other than my obvious interest as an Orthodox Christian? I mean, yes, I have visited Hagia Sophia twice and, yes, I have silently prayed before some of the uncovered icons. I know I am not a neutral source of info on this and I have held off writing a column about the subject because there were few highly public, on-the-record sources to quote other than the words of Greeks and others fearing the worse.

That’s what makes this RNS story so timely and strong. Look at the simple, clear attributions. Note that most of the news in this story comes from Muslim voices in public statements.

It’s a story. It’s real. It’s time for the media to cover this.

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About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • DeaconJohnMBresnahan

    Sadly, it isn’t just the media that basically doesn’t give a hoot or a holler about events involving Orthodox Christians. The average Western Christian likewise rarely cares much about the fate of Christians in Syria or Turkey.

    • JoFro

      Even I find this shocking! I know a Protestant friend who is totally on fire for the Faith, who has even gone on mission trips to build homes in the Philippines – but ask her about Orthodoxy or tell her about the plight of Christians in these lands and their troubles? Couldn’t give a flying hoot!

      And it seems to be the same with your average Christian everywhere in the West – and in the East too, like places in India and the Philippines.

      How many Filipino Christians or Indian Christians have any knowledge of what is happening to Orthodox Christians in Arabia and Turkey?

      And how many even care?

      • Darren Blair

        It goes beyond that.

        I’ve met entirely too many Protestants who only cared about:

        1. What was happening to “Good Christians” in their home country
        2. What was happening to “Good Christians” in select countries like China, Saudi Arabia, Iran, and North Korea.

        The plight of Orthodox Christians in the Middle East? They don’t care.

        The fact that Mormons world-wide (even in America) are routinely subject to threats of violence? They don’t care.

        The pogroms against the Baha’i and Zoroastrians living in Iran? They don’t care.

        But say “Happy Holidays!” instead of “Merry Christmas!” and they’ll completely freak out.

      • Peggy

        JoFro, Unfortunately too many Protestants, particularly Evangelicals do not consider the Orthodox to be real Christians. They are weird and idolators to boot. They are more like to try and convert them to a real relationship with Christ than they are to fight to save them as they are.

  • Julia B

    I think it’s even worse. Most Protestants don’t even realize there are indigenous Christians in the Near East who have been Christians since soon after the Resurrection. If I try to talk about Christians in Syria or Iraq, they think I’m talking about new Christians who have been evangelized from the West.
    That video was truly fascinating. Thanks for posting it.

    • JoFro

      What you said is sadly true! :( When I talk to Protestants and even many Catholics about Coptic Christians, they just have a blank expression on their face – who and what is this Coptic Christians you are talking about?


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