Turkey Sends Strong Message Through Trabzon Hagia Sophia
Turkey Narrows the Space for Religious Diversity Through Church-Mosque Conversions
07/29/2020 Washington D.C. (International Christian Concern) – International Christian Concern (ICC) has learned that on July 28, 2020, Turkey conducted a ceremonial reopening of Trabzon’s Sumela Monastery and Hagia Sophia, a church now operating as a mosque. This ceremony occurred just days after Turkey officially reopened Istanbul’s Hagia Sophia church as a mosque. Turkey’s emphasis on the conversion of historical churches into mosques signals the country’s religious freedom decline.
Trabzon’s Hagia Sophia is smaller than its Istanbul namesake, but shares a similar history. It is one of the best conserved Byzantine churches. Its Christian frescoes were whitewashed during Ottoman rule as part of its conversion into a mosque. Under the rule of Atatürk, the church was converted into a museum. Turkey converted it back into a mosque in 2013. Trabzon’s Hagia Sophia underwent a series of reconstruction causing many concern that it would completely alter the architecture of the church. For example, features which define it as a church (such as the apse) were removed. The church is now known as Hagia Sophia Mosque and the Christian frescoes are covered.
Sumela Monastery was established in approximately 386 AD and forcibly abandoned during Turkey’s genocide targeting Greek, Armenian, and Assyrian Christians. Following its abandonment, the monastery was vandalized, used by tobacco smugglers, and later ruined by a fire.
Both Trabzon’s Hagia Sophia and Sumela Monastery were reopened today after a period of reconstruction, and President Erdoğan spoke during the ceremony. His comments were a reflection of criticism directed towards the recent conversion of Istanbul’s Hagia Sophia. He said, “If we were a nation targeting the symbols of other beliefs, the Sumela Monastery which we have had for the last five centuries, would be gone forever.”
Such comments reflect the conquest narrative Turkey uses when discussing its Christian history. Most of the country’s Christian population were exterminated during the 20th century genocide, which Turkey fails to recognize. Remaining Christians suffer significant hardships relating to legal identity, recognition, discrimination, and other types of persecution.
Turkish journalist Uzay Bulut, who was born in Trabzon and a frequent visitor of the monastery, shared with ICC, “This is an act of desecration of a historic and magnificent monastery and a blatant demonstration of Islamic supremacism. However, the Sumela Monastery should have always been used by a community of monastics, monks and nuns – this is what it was built for. This is what a decent respect for religious liberty and civilization would require.”
“Why are monasteries, churches and cathedrals not allowed to operate in their original forms in Turkey, a candidate for European Union membership? And a more important question is: Why are there no longer any Orthodox Christians in Trabzon, which was once founded, inhabited, and ruled by Greek Christians?” she continues. “The indigenous Christians of the city were all massacred or forcibly deported about a hundred years ago. Sadly, concepts such as religious liberty, cultural preservation and respect for other faiths are foreign to so many Turks. And this is not just a governmental issue. It is a cultural and religious issue.”
Turkey is recommended for a special watch list by the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom. Turkey also rates as number 36 on Open Doors’ World Watch List on Christian persecution.
Claire Evans, ICC’s Regional Manager for the Middle East, said, “The pain caused by Istanbul’s Hagia Sophia being converted into a mosque remains raw, and this latest ceremony makes the pain felt even worse. It reminds us that we need only look so far as Trabzon for an example of what to expect when Turkey converts a church into a mosque: the slow erasure of its Christian history. The monastery also reminds us of what is stake. Violent persecution and an attitude of conquest has caused Christians in Turkey so much suffering. We encourage Turkey to create an atmosphere that facilitates religious freedom for all, allowing for the full restoration of Christianity in those areas in once inhabited.”