ICC Note: Calls for Hagia Sophia, one of the oldest churches in Turkey, to be converted back into a mosque for prayer continue to emerge. The rich history of this church is a major symbol for Christians in Turkey. Converted into a mosque following the conquering of Istanbul by the Ottomans, it became a museum in 1935, as part of the secular Turkish republic. The talk to convert it again into a mosque raises fears about an increasing Islamist agenda and greater troubles for the remaining Christian communities.
By: Maurice Kodeih
06/09/14 Turkey (Al-Monitor) – It seems that history, or at least parts of it, has left in its wake countless problems — hatred and feuds, among other things — which take shape as symbols that express them. The symbol turns into a warhorse of consecutive or separated rounds, depending on the circumstances.
One of these symbols is the Hagia Sophia (Church of the Divine Wisdom) in Istanbul, whose current structure was built by the Eastern Roman Emperor Justinian the Great and completed in the year 537. For Christians, especially the Orthodox, it is an important church, whereas for the Turks and Muslims it is the symbol of the Muslim conquest and a sign of a historic victory that is still on the minds of many people, probably because of today’s misery.
During these days, the anniversary of the fall of Constantinople — the date that was set by Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan to reconvert the Hagia Sophia into a mosque — coincides with a call to the leaders of Islamic countries to pray there.
The Hagia Sophia — this great building — was a church for more than 1,000 years, and was the seat of the Ecumenical Patriarchate during that period, except under the Latin occupation of Constantinople (1204-1261) when the seat was moved to Nicaea. This was before the Ottoman Sultan Mehmet II (known as Mehmet the Conqueror) turned it into a mosque in 1453 after he took control and occupied the city. The Hagia Sophia remained a mosque until 1935, when the founder of modern Turkey decided to offer it as “a gift to mankind” by converting it into a museum.
The period from 1915 to 1933 was tantamount to a “religious purge” that affected all the Christians of Anatolia. In addition, the period witnessed one of the largest property-seizing operations, resulting in a huge transfer of property from the hands of the Christian population who had been killed or displaced to the Muslim population who were refugees from the areas subject to the authority of the sultanate. The latter group formed a socioeconomic class that supported the new regime.