(Guest post by Victoria Hudson)
Hagia Sophia, which at the behest of Recep Tayyip Erdogan becomes a mosque again, will remain open to visitors outside Islamic prayer times, five times a day, when Christian symbols are to somehow be covered. Diyanet, the Directorate for Religious Affairs of Turkey, led by the mufti Ali Erbas, repeated it, without going into detail after the contested decision to convert Hagia Sophia from museum to mosque. “All human representations inside the Hagia Sophia mosque do not constitute an impediment to the conduct of Islamic rites. Frescoes and mosaics will be covered by a curtain and obscured in an appropriate way only during prayer hours, also by resorting to games of light and shadows”. Erbas explained. Erdogan wants the opening to the Muslim faithful from the July 24 prayer. It will be the first time since 1934. For the spokesman for Turkey’s foreign ministry, Hami Aksoy, Hagia Sophia is a world heritage site which, even if converted into a mosque, will remain open to the faithful of all religions.
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Despite this, Christians around the world have condemned Erdogan’s decision. The Presidents of Churches Together in England, representing the full breadth of Christian traditions in England, are saddened at the decision of the Turkish Government to change the status of Hagia Sophia in Istanbul. A statement was released highlighting that for a long period of time Hagia Sophia has been a unique centre symbolising a co-existence of people of faith. It is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and, as a place where the rich history of Istanbul is told visually, it can be a living example of religious tolerance and respect. In Sunday’s Angelus in Rome, Pope Francis addressed a thought to what is happening in Istanbul. “I think of Santa Sofia and I am very saddened.” The Pope commented.
“Hagia Sophia has a strong symbolic, historical and universal value. Turkey has developed a well-established tradition of cultural conservation as well as a recognised tradition of intellectual and cultural openness. The ruling by the Turkish Council of State to overturn one of modern Turkey’s landmark decisions and President Erdogan’s decision to place the monument under the management of the Religious Affairs Presidency, is regrettable. As a founding member of the Alliance of Civilisations, Turkey has committed to the promotion of inter-religious and inter-cultural dialogue and to fostering of tolerance and co-existence.
The European Union affirmed, while the Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis announced that his country condemns more decisively Turkey’s decision to convert the mosque of Hagia Sophia, the former Byzantine cathedral of Istanbul, into a mosque, warning that this step will adversely affect the relations between Athens and Ankara. “The Turkish move will affect not only relations between Greece and Turkey, but also Turkey’s relations with the European Union, UNESCO and the entire international community”. Mitsotakis added. Previously, Greek Culture Minister Lina Mandoni described the Turkish decision as a “provocation for the civilized world,” and warned that the nationalism shown by President Erdogan is returning his country to six centuries ago. The Turkish State Council approved requests made by several organizations to annul a government decision dating back to 1934 which gave the site “museum status” but the Greek Minister of Culture believed that this judicial decision confirmed the absence of independence of the judiciary under Erdogan’s regime. In her statement, Mandoni stressed “the Hagia Sophia is a building that belongs to all humanity, regardless of any religious belief.”
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The decision to convert Hagia Sophia in a mosque follows the visit of Erdogan to Doha. According to local media, the Turkish president agreed with the Qataris to allow some Western countries to convert mosques into churches in exchange to convert Hagia Sophia into a place of worship for Muslims. Recent reports revealed the expansion of political Islam in Europe through substantial Qatari funding to mosques, especially in Italy and France. According to the French newspaper “Libération”, Qatar manages an enthusiastic relationship with the Union of Islamic Organizations of France (UOIF), France’s representative of the Muslim Brotherhood. The Italian “Il Giornale” also published several evidences of the dangerous connection of the Italian Union of Islamic Communities and Organization (UCOII) with the Muslim Brothers. A few years ago, Georges Malbrounot, a well-known journalist of “Le Figaro”, who has dealt with relations between France and Qatar for a long time, claimed that “through UOIF and financing mosques, the idea of Qatar is to take control of Islam in France”. All this has raised concerns in European public opinion, igniting the political debate.
The Cathedral of Saint Sophia is an architectural masterpiece that the Byzantines built at the entrance of the Bosporus in the sixth century and were crowned by their emperors. After the Ottomans conquered Constantinople, in 1453, Turkish ancestors changed the name of the ancient capital of the Byzantine Empire to Istanbul, they turned the cathedral into a mosque in the same year. Hagia Sophia is listed on the World Heritage List of the United Nations Organization for Education, Culture and Science and is considered one of the most important tourist destinations in Istanbul.
The world begins to understand Erdogan’s danger, his decision to transform Hagia Sophia into a mosque represents only the last move of his contempt for the West and other cultures.