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Constantinople’s Greeks Say Politics Drove Erdogan’s Aghia Sophia Mosque Move

Wanting to pacify his hard-core base as Turkey's economy has wobbled during the COVID-19 base is a key reason why President Recep Tayyip Erdogan ordered the conversion of the Aghia Sophia church in Constantinople into a mosque, Greeks living in the ancient city said.

In doing so, Erdogan overturned a decision by Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the founder of modern, secular Turkey to make the church into a museum in 1934 after it had become a mosque when the city fell to Turkish invaders in 1453.

“Half the Turks I speak to disagree with the decision, as they find it deeply offensive for anyone to challenge Kemal Ataturk and especially his signature on a presidential decree,” 58-year-old P.K., a Greek from Istanbul, told Kathimerini. “Personally, I wasn’t surprised. It was a move the Turkish President needed because it endows him with prestige and strength while it may also rally his electoral base.”

P.K. argued that symbols are important to Turks, “who have trouble processing abstract notions like ‘nation’ and ‘state,’” as evidenced by the plethora of Turkish flags all over the country. “Hagia Sophia as a mosque sends a similar message to the domestic audience,” she said.

“I often discern a bellicose attitude, but unfortunately, you keep forgetting that there are Greeks living here,” she added.

The conversion led to international denunciations ignored by Erdogan who attended the first Muslim prayer session inside the now mosque, where Christian symbols were covered over.

Happening during COVID-19, the furor died down relatively fast as people were more concerned on their survival than religious symbols or politics between wrangling countries. 

Giannis Gigourtsis, a philologist and researcher who spent 12 years teaching at the Phanar Greek Orthodox College in Constantinople, which the world outside Greece calls Istanbul, that Erdogan's act is “indicative of where the country is heading,” and warned of more provocations.

“Mr Erdogan has this proprietary attitude: ‘The monument is mine and I’ll do what I want with it. What do I care about world heritage?’” Gigourtsis said was his interpretation of why it was done, believing it was aided by US President Donald Trump's support of Erdogan and near deference to the Turkish leader.

“They have this overall vision of elevating the country into a leading force in the Islamic world, but they do not have an organized, long-term plan and they often act opportunistically,” he said.

Aghia Sophia, a world UNESCO heritage site, gets more than three million visitors a year and Turkey has now made entry free while adding more Islamic symbols inside one of Christianity's most reverent buildings.

Minas Vasiliadis, publisher of the Greek community newspaper Apogevmatini told Kathimerini that Erdogan is “pressing on the trigger of a gun with one bullet,” that may already be spent.

His decision to convert  Aghia Sophia was a risky move that suggests “he has done the math and is convinced that it will work, while knowing that there are a lot of problems in other areas.” 

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