Hagia Sophia: Turkey's mosque conversion may embolden extremists, say experts

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Hind Al Soulia - Riyadh - Reverting Istanbul’s Hagia Sophia to a mosque risks inspiring religious extremists and threatens other cultural sites across the region, according to a leading expert on religious heritage.

Turkey’s top administrative court on Friday announced its decision to revoke the 1,500-year-old former cathedral’s status as a museum, paving the way for it to be opened as a mosque again.

Tugba Tanyeri Erdemir, a research associate at the University of Pittsburgh, said Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s use of “a rhetoric of conquest” in justifying the change had set a dangerous precedent for religious minorities in Turkey and the Middle East.

“It can embolden extremists to intensify their campaign of forced conversion and destruction of minority heritage sites,” she told The National.

Dr Tanyeri Erdemir, a member of Turkey’s Association for the Protection of Cultural Heritage whose research focuses on managing minority religious sites, said the conversion would harm Turkey’s reputation.

“Turkey already has a problematic track record when it comes to minority rights and freedom of religion or belief,” she said.

“Hagia Sophia's conversion will further undermine the country’s global image. Senior officials from the United States, Russia and Greece have already expressed their concerns over Erdogan's proposed conversion plans and many others from around the world will without a doubt join them.”

Hagia Sophia or Ayasofya, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, that was a Byzantine cathedral before being converted into a mosque which is currently a museum, is seen in Istanbul, Turkey. REUTERS

Istanbul shows Hagia Sophia museum in Istanbul. Turkey's top court is due on July 2, 2020 to deliver a critical verdict on the status of Istanbul's emblematic landmark church-turned-mosque-turned museum Hagia Sophia, a ruling which could inflame tensions mainly with neighboring Greece. The sixth-century edifice -- a magnet for tourists worldwide with its stunning architecture -- has been serving as a secular museum since the 1930s which makes it open to believers of all faiths. AFP

Istanbul shows Hagia Sophia museum in Istanbul. Turkey's top court is due on July 2, 2020 to deliver a critical verdict on the status of Istanbul's emblematic landmark church-turned-mosque-turned museum Hagia Sophia, a ruling which could inflame tensions mainly with neighboring Greece. The sixth-century edifice -- a magnet for tourists worldwide with its stunning architecture -- has been serving as a secular museum since the 1930s which makes it open to believers of all faiths. AFP

People visit the Byzantine-era Hagia Sophia, one of Istanbul's main tourist attractions in the historic Sultanahmet district of Istanbul. The 6th-century building is now at the center of a heated debate between conservative groups who want it to be reconverted into a mosque and those who believe the World Heritage site should remain a museum. AP Photo

A view of the Byzantine-era Hagia Sophia, one of Istanbul's main tourist attractions in the historic Sultanahmet district of Istanbul. The 6th-century building is now at the center of a heated debate between conservative groups who want it to be reconverted into a mosque and those who believe the World Heritage site should remain a museum. AP Photo

A Muslim cleric recites the "prayer conquest" from the Quran, Islam's holy book, inside Istanbul's 6th-century Hagia Sophia — the main cathedral of the Byzantine Empire which was converted into a mosque with the Ottoman conquest of the city, then known as Constantinople, in 1453, in Istanbul. The 6th-century building is now at the center of a heated debate between conservative groups who want it to be reconverted into a mosque and those who believe the World Heritage site should remain a museum. AP Photo

People visit the Byzantine-era Hagia Sophia, one of Istanbul's main tourist attractions in the historic Sultanahmet district of Istanbul. The 6th-century building is now at the center of a heated debate between conservative groups who want it to be reconverted into a mosque and those who believe the World Heritage site should remain a museum. AP Photo

An aerial view of the Byzantine-era Hagia Sophia, one of Istanbul's main tourist attractions in the historic Sultanahmet district of Istanbul. The 6th-century building is now at the center of a heated debate between conservative groups who want it to be reconverted into a mosque and those who believe the World Heritage site should remain a museum. AP Photo

In this Friday, March 24, 2017 file photo, people walk backdropped by the Byzantine-era Hagia Sophia, one of Istanbul's main tourist attractions, in the historic Sultanahmet district of Istanbul. The 6th-century building is now at the center of a heated debate between conservative groups who want it to be reconverted into a mosque and those who believe the World Heritage site should remain a museum. (AP Photo/Lefteris Pitarakis, File)

A Turkish visitor prays in front of the Apsis, sacred part facing the eastern direction of Hagia Sophia, inside Hagia Sophia museum in Istanbul. Turkey's top court is due on July 2, 2020 to deliver a critical verdict on the status of Istanbul's emblematic landmark church-turned-mosque-turned museum Hagia Sophia, a ruling which could inflame tensions mainly with neighboring Greece. The sixth-century edifice -- a magnet for tourists worldwide with its stunning architecture -- has been serving as a secular museum since the 1930s which makes it open to believers of all faiths. AFP

A Turkish visitor prays in front of the Apsis, sacred part facing the eastern direction of Hagia Sophia, inside Hagia Sophia museum in Istanbul. Turkey's top court is due on July 2, 2020 to deliver a critical verdict on the status of Istanbul's emblematic landmark church-turned-mosque-turned museum Hagia Sophia, a ruling which could inflame tensions mainly with neighboring Greece. The sixth-century edifice -- a magnet for tourists worldwide with its stunning architecture -- has been serving as a secular museum since the 1930s which makes it open to believers of all faiths. AFP

People visit Hagia Sophia museum in Istanbul. Turkey's top court is due on July 2, 2020 to deliver a critical verdict on the status of Istanbul's emblematic landmark church-turned-mosque-turned museum Hagia Sophia, a ruling which could inflame tensions mainly with neighboring Greece. The sixth-century edifice -- a magnet for tourists worldwide with its stunning architecture -- has been serving as a secular museum since the 1930s which makes it open to believers of all faiths. AFP

People visit Hagia Sophia museum in Istanbul. Turkey's top court is due on July 2, 2020 to deliver a critical verdict on the status of Istanbul's emblematic landmark church-turned-mosque-turned museum Hagia Sophia, a ruling which could inflame tensions mainly with neighboring Greece. The sixth-century edifice -- a magnet for tourists worldwide with its stunning architecture -- has been serving as a secular museum since the 1930s which makes it open to believers of all faiths. AFP

People visit Hagia Sophia or Ayasofya, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, which was a Byzantine cathedral before being converted into a mosque which is currently a museum, in Istanbul, Turkey. REUTERS

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Built by the Byzantines in the 6th century, Hagia Sophia was for centuries the world’s largest building, a centrepiece for Christianity and an engineering marvel. After conquering Istanbul in 1453, Ottoman Sultan Mehmet II made it a place of worship for Muslims.

In 1934, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk’s secular regime turned it into a museum, a decree at the centre of Friday’s announcement by the Council of State. It was designated a Unesco World Heritage site in the 1980s.

The verdict has been highly anticipated since Mr Erdogan revived the debate in recent weeks.

Before last year, the president remained outwardly ambivalent about Hagia Sophia but in the run-up to local elections he outlined his support for its role as a mosque.

In May, he appeared on a giant screen as an imam recited the Quran from the iconic monument to mark the anniversary of the Ottoman conquest, an appearance that sparked an outpouring of support for re-designating the site.

The status of the building, which received 3.7 million visitors last year, has served as a rallying cry for Mr Erdogan’s conservative and nationalist base and some observers say the president has used the issue to distract voters.

Pro-government media has suggested the multi-domed structure could open as a mosque on July 15 – the fourth anniversary of a coup attempt against Mr Erdogan.

“Erdogan’s decision to convert Hagia Sophia into a mosque is a political ploy to boost his waning voter support while also a move to mark his legacy,” said Dr Tanyeri Erdemir.

People gather in front of the Hagia Sophia in Istanbul after a court ruled that its 1934 conversion to a museum was illegal. Reuters
People gather in front of the Hagia Sophia in Istanbul after a court ruled that its 1934 conversion to a museum was illegal. Reuters

Berk Esen, associate professor of international relations at Bilkent University in Ankara, said Hagia Sophia had been a significant issue for pious voters since it was made a museum.

“However, I don’t think today’s decision will change the situation very much for Erdogan and Turkish politics,” he said. “I don’t think many voters, in the middle of an economic crisis, have been waiting anxiously for this.”

Religious minorities in Turkey, Dr Esen added, had “no illusions about the current government, which has been proceeding in this direction for some time, so this will only solidify that image.”

Changing the building’s status was foreshadowed in several other cases since 2011 where museums that had been churches and later mosques were reverted to mosques.

The case led to foreign officials and church leaders calling on Turkey to back away from reclaiming the building, known as Aya Sofya in Turkish, for Islam.

However, Talha Kose, chair of political science and international relations at Istanbul’s Ibn Haldun University, said the monument could remain open to non-Muslims outside prayer times, as is the nearby Blue Mosque.

“I don’t think other nations or political actors should intervene in Turkey’s decisions in this issue, this is totally a domestic matter,” he said.

“Pressuring Turkey in this matter is counterproductive. There may be a dialogue with Unesco though. It is a cultural heritage site and should stay like that but it does not contradict the decision of opening as a mosque.”

On Friday, Unesco said governments “must ensure that no modification is made to the outstanding universal value” of World Heritage sites. In a statement, the agency called on Turkey to “engage in dialogue before taking any decision that might impact the universal value of the site”.

Hagia Sophia’s transformation has also raised fears about the preservation of the building and its historic treasures.

Dr Tanyeri Erdemir said the conversion of three other former churches-turned-museums had resulted in “substantial damage to the historical fabric of the edifices”.

Updated: July 10, 2020 09:39 PM

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