ATHENS – Even as the condemnations from political and religious leaders and international organizations ring out around the world they are ignored by Turkish officials gleefully preparing for the formal prayers on Friday, July 24 that will mark the official conversion into a mosque of the Great Church of the Orthodox world, the Aghia Sophia of Constantinople.
Turkey’s Islamist and increasingly revisionist President Recep Tayyip Erdogan on July 10 formally converted the ‘Megali Ekklisia’ into a mosque and declared it open for Muslim worship. The Associated Press reported that “Turkey's high administrative court threw its weight behind a petition brought by a religious group and annulled the 1934 Cabinet decision that turned the site into a museum. Within hours, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan signed a decree handing over Hagia Sophia to Turkey's Religious Affairs Presidency.”
Erdogan attempted to assuage world public opinion by stating, “like all of our other mosques, the doors of Hagia Sophia will be open to all, locals or foreigners, Muslims and non-Muslims.”
What has not been addressed is universal concern that conversion to a mosque will entail covering up of Aghia Sophia’s mosaics, a number of them renowned as some of the world’s greatest works of religious art, with many fearing their removal and damage. Scholars also noted that important restorations work and research will now be impeded.
“Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu hit back and rejected international intervention concerning its decision to convert Hagia Sophia back into a mosque,” Kathimerini reported, quoting him saying that “Hagia Sophia was left as a legacy as a mosque and must be used as a mosque ... We strongly reject comments that amount to an intervention in Turkey’s sovereign rights.”
The decision sparked criticism in the United States, Greece, and other Western countries as well as from Orthodox Christian leaders. Pope Francis expressed sadness over the move, a statement criticized by Orthodox Christian officials and observers as unacceptably weak and late.
EU foreign ministers, holding their first face-to-face meeting in months on July 13, declared that they “condemned” the decision. EU foreign affairs chief Josep Borrell said there was “broad support to call on the Turkish authorities to urgently consider and reverse this decision.”
Cavusoglu replied, “we reject the word ‘condemnation … This is a matter that concerns Turkey’s sovereign rights.”
Erdogan, also, defended his action, describing the 1934 decision by the Turkish Republic's secular, founding leaders that converted Aghia Sophia from a mosque into a museum as a mistake. “We are rectifying a mistake. It's as simple as that,” Erdogan said.
On Tuesday, Greece continued its expressions of dismay at Turkey’s decision.
“This decision is certainly painful to us as Greek Orthodox Christians but it also hurts us as citizens of the world,” said Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis. “This is not a Greek-Turkish issue, it is not even a Euro-Turkish issue, it is global. It is a universal issue … With this setback, Turkey is choosing to sever ties with the Western world and its values. It abandons a cultural direction of many centuries, preferring introversion.”
Meanwhile, officials from Turkey's religious affairs authority, said the landmark structure can remain open to visitors outside of prayer hours, according to the state-run Anadolu Agency.
“The Christian depictions inside are no obstacle to Muslim prayers, said the officials who are preparing the site for Muslim worship. They added however, that the figures would need to be covered with curtains or through other means during the prayers, in line with Islamic traditions that prohibit such representations,” the AP reported.
Reports that the measures might include some kind of obscuring of the views of the images by turning lasers on them sparked further outrage.
HOPE FOR REVERSAL FADING FAST
Orthodox and non-Orthodox Christians alike expressed hope that the decision would be reversed in response to pressure from Western leaders like U.S. President Donald Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin, but their actions to date do not justify optimism.
Vladimir Putin, in a telephone call to Erdogan pointed out “the significant social impact caused in Russia regarding the decision to change the status of Hagia Sophia in Constantinople,” however, hisDeputy Minister of Foreign Affairs Sergei Vershinin said that “Turkey’s decision to convert Hagia Sophia into a mosque has sparked public outcry in Russia and beyond, but is an internal Turkish affair in which no one should intervene.”
Trump on the other hand, reportedly did not even mention Aghia Sophia during a conversation with Erdogan, evoking criticism by senior U.S. Diplomat and Biden presidential campaign foreign policy advisor Nicholas Burns, who served as U.S. Ambassador to Greece from 1997-2001.
“It is very disappointing that President Trump apparently did not even raise the issue with President Erdogan in their recent phone call. That is a major missed opportunity,” he told Kathimerini.
Democratic presidential candidate and former Vice President Joe Biden said, “I deeply regret the Turkish government's decision to convert the Hagia Sophia into a mosque and urge Turkish President Recep Erdogan to reverse his decision.”
People outside Turkey people pinning their hopes on external pressure that will cause Erdogan to reverse his decision – or modify it, perhaps limiting mosque status to Fridays – are ignoring evidence of how invested the Turkish leader and his followers are in his long-anticipated action.
The conversion into a mosque of Aghia Sophia of Constantinople was foreshadowed by other ‘Agia Sophias’ recently being turned into mosques in cities like Trapezounta and Prousa, as well as the beloved Church of the Chora in Constantinople. Reviled by some as a desecration, given the need to cover up icons – such criticisms fall on deaf ears in Turkey.
Indeed, the lamentations by renowned Byzantinologist Helene Glykatzi-Ahrweiler calling the conversion, “the second fall of Constantinople” are eerily validated inside Turkey.
As far away as India the Economic Times noted “there was jubilation outside the terracotta-hued structure with its cascading domes and four minarets. Dozens of people awaiting the court’s ruling chanted ‘Allah is great!’ when the news broke. A large crowd later prayed outside it.”
Selim Koru, a noted Turkish political analyst and writer explained the powerful hold of Erdogan’s act on Turkish imagination in an op-ed piece for the New York Times. He noted, “the most articulate expression of this view was delivered by Necip Fazil Kisakurek, Turkey’s most prominent Islamist poet and polemicist of the time, on Dec. 29, 1965” who said the decision to convert the structure into a museum was to “put the Turks’ essential spirit inside a museum.”
That sentiment inspired the life mission of Ismail Kandemir, the 75-year-old founder of the Turkish Association for the Protection of Historical Monuments and the Environment who filed the legal case that led to last week’s decisions.
Countless articles documented Turkey’s provocations in recent years, and many editorials warned that Ankara eats appeasement for breakfast and only makes Turks hungry for more, but now that the long-feared conversion of Aghia Sophia into a mosque is a reality, a harsh defeat for Hellenism and Orthodoxy on the cultural and diplomatic front, some observers say the provocative act presages more dangerous moves by Erdogan.