CONSTANTINOPLE – For Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, turning the ancient church of Aghia Sophia in Constantinople into a mosque again, 86 years after it became a museum – was a kind of symbolic conquest again.
On May 29, 1453, Sultan Mehmed II took occupation of the city that had been the jewel of the Byzantine Empire, the Church the crowning touch and place where emperors had stood inside, looking at its 10,000 gold mosaics celebrating Christianity.
In a move critics said was political and not religious, Erdogan – playing to his hardcore Muslim base – ordered the church to become a mosque, as it had been for 481 years before Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the founder of modern, secular Turkey, made it a museum in 1934 as he brought his country into the 20th century.
On July 24, Erdogan led the Muslim faithful in prayer, as much symbolic as religious but critical to his followers who are Trump-like in their adoration of him even as he has purged the courts, civil society, the military and jailed almost as many journalists as China, all while trying to get Turkey into the European Union, a 15-year-long attempt.
“We see this as the second conquest of Istanbul,” Selahattin Pamukcu, 33, who had come especially from the Aegean region of Izmir told Agence France-Presse (AFP.)
“This is the moment when Turkey breaks its chains. Now it can do whatever it wants, without having to submit to the West,” added Selahattin Aydas from Germany.
It was, however, as much Erdogan continuing to taunt Greece after repeatedly having fighter jets and warships violate Greek airspace and waters and planning to drill for energy off Greek islands under a maritime deal with Libya no other country accepts.
So enthused were the new invaders of the church that thousands had to pray on the ground outside while Erdogan and VIPS got the box seats inside, beaming the ceremony to a country which wildly accepted what he did despite denunciation by the international community.
Showing that he does, indeed, have the ear of US President Donald Trump, The US Ambassador to Turkey, David Satterfield, visited Hagia Sophia five days after it became a mosque, giving it the American imprimatur after the US advised against the change.
According to Turkish media, the ambassador was accompanied by Coskun Yilmaz, Istanbul's top culture and tourism official, another victory lap for Erdogan over the US and Greece too.
Some scuffles broke out between worshipers and police as crowds scrambled to get into the overcrowded plaza in the historic Sultanahmet district of Istanbul, where people had camped out the night before, said AFP.
As the call to prayer reverberated from the Hagia Sophia’s four minarets, huge crowds spread prayer mats on the lawns outside while, inside, Erdogan – wearing an Islamic skullcap, recited a verse from the Koran.
In a sermon, the head of the state religious affairs agency, Ali Erbas, said that the reopening “is the return of a sacred place, which had embraced believers for five centuries, to its original function.”
Erdogan had picked the 97th anniversary of the Treaty of Lausanne for the opening, giving him a chance to take a side shot at the agreement he doesn't recognize and as he covets return of Greek islands ceded away.
He showed he doesn't care what anyone thinks, least of all Greece, which denounced the conversion as a provocation to the “entire civilized world,” which looked the other way and let it happen.
“What is happening in (Istanbul) this day is not a show of force, but proof of weakness,” Greek Premier Kyriakos Mitsotakis said in a statement ignored in Turkey, where there was wide acceptance.
“Especially to us Orthodox Christians, Aghia Sophia today is in our hearts more than ever. It is where our heart beats,” said Mitsotakis who, apart from calls for it not to happen, let it happen.
“As a Greek, I’m quite bitter. I’m feeling quite angry about it,” European Commission Vice-President Margaritis Schinas told a press briefing.
“I think that Turkey at a certain point should decide what their geopolitical stance should be, and who they want to align themselves with in the future,” warned Schinas, going further than the EU has so far, the bloc's leaders reluctant to provoke Erdogan in fear he will send more refugees and migrants through Greek islands and borders.
“Will Turkey want to work along with the European Union and base themselves on European values? And, if that’s the case, what’s happening today with the Hagia Sophia is really a bad starting point,” he said.